Saturday, 30 May 2015

The mysterious allure of gardening


I wouldn't say I'm obsessed with my greenhouse - although others might. But I have to admit that in the week of the Chelsea Flower Show, a review of its TV coverage did ring a bell:

Like many newly keen gardeners, I thought gardening was stupid until I got a garden of my own. This happened to coincide with me growing old and boring, or older and more boring, as my wife will tell you. It may be that piddling about in the garden has replaced participatory sport, parties and indeed speaking to other human beings because it's the only leisure activity that allows you to hide. 

That was Benji Wilson writing in the Telegraph. 

I've actually enjoyed gardening for a long time - beginning at my prep school. Several times a day, we were thrown out into the school grounds, whatever the weather. If, like me, you weren't sporty, there wasn't much to do except wander round and wait for time to pass. But you were allowed to join the Gardening Club. This centred on some small allotments in an old walled kitchen garden. The chief attraction was not the gardening, but access to an old shed where the gardening implements were kept. It was a vital few degrees warmer than the fresh air in winter.

In fact, I found the gardening itself quite absorbing. When I joined, I remember being shown my little plot by Eddie Hayward, the head of the Club. "But what is there to do all the time?" I asked him. "Oh, there's always something that needs tidying up, or the soil needs digging, even in winter," he assured me.

And he was right. From the outside gardening looks like a series of tasks to be completed - seeds to germinate, flowers or vegetables to grow - but it's actually a process. It's the doing that counts, not the results.

Supposing you had all the time in the world and all the help you needed to make the best garden you could. How long would it take? And how would you know you had finished? You wouldn't, because perfection leads to decline. Even on a single plant there are leaves, fruits and flowers at different stages of development: there's no perfect moment when it's finished.

So, to me, it's not just "piddling about" as Benji Wilson puts it. It's a kind of physical metaphor for our lives. Just as drama resonates because it evokes feelings and relationships we recognise, so gardening makes sense to us because it contains patterns we know, perhaps unconsciously, are worth tuning in to.

The older I get, the more those elusive patterns mean to me. Like the mysterious attraction of a particular shape to the Richard Dreyfuss character in Close Encounters, so older people are drawn to gardening without having to understand why.

Every evening when I get back from work, I feel compelled go out and have a look at my greenhouse, to make a few adjustments and see how things are getting on. Some plants are flourishing; others are in decline. I can guide and encourage, but in the end, as in life, the forces of nature are more powerful than anything I can do. I'm really just there to witness what's happening - for my own sake, not really for the plants.


Monday, 25 May 2015

At last - this is what a greenhouse should be doing


I can't help feeling my greenhouse has been underperforming during its first few weeks. So I was delighted to visit it today and see the sun was pouring in through its toughened glass and that its automatic window (£27 from the Greenhouse People) had decided to ease itself open to cool things down inside.

Further inspection revealed that conditions were positively tropical.

The plants looked contented, and I could actually hear them growing - a subtle background buzz of gentle organic stretching.

Being in the greenhouse was like being part of one of those natural history time-lapse sequences, in real time. But can it last?


Saturday, 16 May 2015

Where's that greenhouse effect?


I know that conditions in a greenhouse in South West London in early May aren't exactly like the tropical rainforest. But I thought my new greenhouse might at least grow things as well as they grow on the window-sill in the kitchen. Not so far.

Here is my first crop, started on the window-sill and about to graduate to the greenhouse.

They're a collection of seeds that came in a gift pack, called - a little too cutely - "Psychedelic Salad": unusual coloured beetroot, cucumbers etc.

And here they are in the greenhouse, ten days later:

Spring onions


The lettuces have all been eaten by something, the spring onions look anorexic, and the beetroot and radishes are all over the place.

I have high hopes for the cucumber, which actually look quite healthy:

But going back to the window-sill question, more recently I planted some tomato and sweetcorn seeds on both the window-sill and in the greenhouse. So far, only the window-sill ones are doing well:



There's no sign of the rest of these packets, which I planted in the greenhouse. I've always believed in the greenhouse effect, but in my garden, it seems a bit of a myth.


Saturday, 9 May 2015

Constructive decomposition: never buy fertiliser again


In line with my make-do-and-mend policy, I was hoping to make use of the compost heap I've been accumulating at the end of the garden over the past few years. Wouldn't it be satisfactory if that could provide new plants in my greenhouse with all they needed to grow in?

But when I looked the compost heap, it didn't look promising. I probably hadn't left it long enough to decompose and I'd been too optimistic about the process - adding too many small branches that might disintegrate before the next ice age, eventually turning into coal I suppose, but wouldn't be compost for several centuries after I myself had returned to my constituent elements.

At least, that's how it looked.

But when I started digging, I found a layer of damp, dark, crumbly stuff underneath. In fact, it bore a striking resemblance to real compost.

And when it has been sieved, it looked even better:

What's more, there was an awful lot of it. A bit like the miracle of the loaves and the fishes, I found I was able to fill up all my pots, and still had a whole wheelbarrow of unsieved stuff left over. I had enough compost to feed five thousand seedlings - well, almost.  

Sunday, 3 May 2015

A quest for shelf-improvement


So far, buying the greenhouse has been a bit of an extravagance. As well as the greenhouse itself, there was the cost of building a concrete base, and paying someone to assemble it.

But from now on it's going to be re-use and recycle - in other words, a return to my usual cheapskate style.

So instead of buying shelves from the Greenhouse People, from whom I bought the greenhouse (although I must admit they look rather good), I made some myself from leftovers.

They may be a little narrower than you might wish, limited by the width of the plank I sliced up to make them, but I reckoned there wasn't going to a lot of jostling and horseplay in the greenhouse, and not much wind either, so that if they were sturdy enough, they'd probably do the job.

Now I'm starting to get an idea of how much I'm going to be able to fit into the greenhouse. My son says he wants to see every cubic centimetre filled with biomass. I'd rather aim for a kind of scenic grotto with enough room for a human being to visit comfortably, or maybe even to sit and read in pleasant surroundings.