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A gardener’s Xmas: hoe, hoe, hoe

Friday 18 December 2009

Although he will spend today in hospital as a result of an injury sustained on his allotment, our countryside commentator John Sheard will pass the holiday period hoping that members of his family will have picked up the none-too-subtle hint about what he wants in his Christmas stocking

IT IS almost 40 years now since I took up vegetable gardening and, even then, I started on the wrong foot (not the foot, I should say, which I was later to impale on a fork as I was turning over my compost heap). I chose to grow what I later found out to be one of the most perplexing crops in the gardening world, humble, every-day parsley.

This was the early 1970s and my wife and I had moved into a new house high in the Lancashire Pennines with a couple of poplar trees, a line of rose bushes by the path, and a large expanse of lawn where our two toddlers could play. But there was a problem: the local shops were, shall we say, a little conservative in their display of foodstuffs.

John Sheard
Our countryside commentator John Sheard
These were the days, difficult to believe now, when if you wanted to cook using olive oil you had to buy it in tiny bottles from the chemist: its main use in Britain was to pour into blocked ears to clear the wax. This was a problem for my wife and I who had just begun to study French provincial cooking inspired by the best ever English cookery writer, Elizabeth David. Another mega problem was the rarity of fresh parsley, which French cuisine demands by the handful. Our only source was the fishmonger in the nearby town who used it as a decorative garnish for the fish on display. To acquire some, we had to buy fish – which often we didn’t really need – and beg for some of the parsley. As this was often to into a meat or even an egg dish, it had to be carefully washed to remove the fishy smell and as a result was wet, soggy and bordering on tasteless. There was only one solution: grow your own!

The first of many mistakes. Parsley is one of the damndest, stubbornest, pickiest crops in the garden, the prima donna of the herb bed. Legend has it that it will only grow in a household where the woman wears the trousers (I suppose they all do, these days) and being a man, a never read the instructions on the seed packet or, even more informative, in the garden manuals.

For a start, parsley is a bi-annual crop: it grows small the first year, dies back over winter, blooms to its magnificent cabbage-size head in the second summer – and then dies never to return.

This of, course, is if you can get to germinate at all, for another legend says that the seeds go to the Devil and back before they spring into life. I suppose there are so many legends about this pesky plant because of the frustrations of a million gardeners.

I was hooked on the hobby which has gripped me ever since...

However, I eventually succeeded in that first garden and then thought: why not grow some salad too? So I fenced off a bit of the lawn ... and I was hooked on the hobby which has gripped me ever since. That fence kept moving up the lawn, much to the annoyance of my growing children, until we had to move to another house across the road where I was able to buy a section of the farmer’s field next door for my first veg patch proper.

Now in these days of computer games and violent videos, most young folk think that gardening in a slow doddle for wrinklies, a risk-free, snail-paced bore for the past-it population. Not so.

At the time, I was a chief reporter for a national Sunday newspaper under immense stress and I am sure that my garden – plus the odd day’s fly fishing – kept me sane. And reasonably fit. Digging, say the experts, is a good as swimming as an exercise and is particularly helpful, for reasons I cannot grasp, in building up bone tissue – an important consideration for we wrinklies.

Nor is it completely risk free: scores of gardeners injure themselves every year with sharp tools (as in my speared foot) and electric gadgets like mowers, hedge clippers and strimmers. Which is why, today, I shall be undergoing a minor operation at the wonderful Aireville General Hospital, near Skipton, to correct the double hernia I sustained lugging plastic sacks of ornamental bark round my allotment.

This has proved a major set-back, for I have been unable to do the winter digging and in the wonderful Indian summer of this autumn, the weeds ran amuck. On the plus side, and there is always a plus side in the veg patch, the leeks, turnips and perpetual spinach have thrived too.

There is another good side to this, too: I shall miss all the turmoil of the chaotic global warming conference in Copenhagen, which is turning into a three ring circus, and lie back in my hospital bed with some of my favourite reading at this time of the year: my seed catalogues with their promise of spring.

If I get any visitors, it will also give me the opportunity to reinforce the none-too subtle hints about what I would like Santa to bring me next week. It would be most improper to put that on-line, but here is a little hint: hoe, hoe, hoe...

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