July 2013

posted 2 Jul 2013, 09:35 by Bob Brace   [ updated 3 Jul 2013, 01:39 ]
‘What we need’ says Mr O G, staring out at the wind battered garden, ‘are some gale-proof plants.’ Cue the
agaves. I bought my first one at an open garden day at Lambeth Palace. The Archbishop had potted up some very nice examples and I bought one about the size of a teapot – Mr O G said I could only have it if I carried it home on the train myself. I did, but even at that size it was able to inflict a series of injuries on anyone who came near it – quite handy on the tube, actually. It is now about three feet in every direction and is a veritable monster. Agave Americana and its cousin AA Variegata are wonderfully tough and very stately and architectural plants upon which I now rely for structure in the flower garden. It is true, they do not actually flower. In fact, some members of the family have been known to ask plaintively ‘what do they DO?’ and the truthful answer is that they don’t DO anything much – they just sit there gradually becoming larger and larger and more and more stately and architectural. Their great advantage is that they never so much as quiver, no matter how hard the wind blows and, a bonus, no slug or snail or indeed any creature will tackle those tough leathery and spiny leaves. Agaves have to go into the greenhouse, or some kind of shelter for the winter – not because they can’t tolerate the cold, but because they can’t tolerate the cold while wet. The book tells us that they can survive down to minus 40 degrees centigrade provided they are perfectly dry, although I am happy to say that I don’t have personal experience of such extremes, but I do know that they survived the night of the celebrated minus 19 degrees the BBC attributed to Chesham a couple of winters ago. I did actually take this up with the BBC, asking to be told exactly where in Chesham this was recorded, but they never replied. Anyway the agaves are no trouble. They never need watering, and are quite happy in raised pots for years. This is why we started growing them. In the drought years we had begun to suffer with a peculiar ailment known to all gardeners as water carrier’s shoulder. The government exhorted us to harvest rainwater and to concrete over our lawns. Luckily we resisted the concreting but Mr O G has always harvested rainwater. He has a complicated system of interconnected water butts and pipes and channels, and also a Heath Robinson device which collects the bathwater as well. Even with all of this, we became heartily tired of watering and sought ways to reduce it. The agaves were perfect. They will occasionally produce babies as side shoots which you can just pull off the main root and pot up, and so the collection grows. The only thing is, they are vicious. Those spiky leaves will draw blood if you touch them, so for moving the agaves, or acting as their midwife, it is necessary to wear armour and goggles and gauntlets. It’s also a good idea to grow some yarrow in the garden. This is a useful plant, known as the carpenter’s herb because of its styptic qualities, and it has pretty flowers as well. I know how efficient it is at stopping bleeding because Mr O G tends to have a cavalier attitude towards his workshop cuts and scrapes and generally refuses any kind of first aid, preferring to wipe up the blood with an oily rag, but will put up with having a leaf or two wrapped around his wounds. Whilst we are on medicinal plants, petty spurge, that lowly wild version of the garden euphorbias, is a good one. A handful of its leaves, covered with boiling water and left to steep will then make an effective bathe for warts or veruccas or those nuisance spots that the doctor so cheerfully refers to as ‘the barnacles of old age’. Wipe the infusion over the spot two or three times a day for a couple of weeks, and it will steadily reduce until it vanishes.

The garden, despite the recent high winds, is looking good. Peonies and baby figs jostle for space with poppies and hardy geraniums, cornflowers both white and blue, irises, and spires of foxgloves and lupins and delphiniums,
while the fences and arches are clothed with clematis and golden hops. The fruit garden, just as the man predicted, is burgeoning. We have tasted our first strawberry – one each, and look gloatingly at the fat beauties reclining on their straw waiting to turn red. As long as the slugs or birds don’t get them that is. Blackbirds are wonderfully adept at getting under the nets. Lettuces are now enormous, and we can have the luxury of just discarding the outer leaves and feasting on the crisp hearts. The chives are a mass of fluffy pink flowers – not only do they look good in a vase, but you can scatter the flowers over the lettuces on their plates and it is the prettiest and tastiest way of eating chives that I know.

We have also feasted on our first tiny new potatoes which have such a wonderful flavour. This feasting though was not entirely joyous. The reason we have dug some of them so early is this: I was wandering around the vegetable garden, just generally seeing what I could expect shortly in the kitchen trug, when I spotted something which made my heart plummet. One of the potato plants was shivering. This is my way of describing the look of the leaves – just not quite as happy as the others, and just the suggestion of a curl at the edges as if it was hugging itself – not much really but enough to strike fear into the soul of the gardener. I sent immediately for Mr O G who took one look, and silently fetched his fork. As he turned up the plant, the tiny white potatoes cascaded around, they looked lovely and I started scooping them up, but the problem was easy to see, at the base of the stem the first black marks were starting to show. Blight. It gives an inkling of how those poor Irish farmers must have felt when the signs started to show in their staple crop. You have to act fast. First remove the affected plant and take all of the haulm and any stray leaves and put them straight into the green bin. (You used to have to burn them, but the council claim it is all right to put them in the bin. I don’t believe this, it seems foolish to take the chance of spreading such a pernicious disease, and I asked them about it, but they insisted they could cope with it.) The potatoes are still all right and can be eaten, but they will not keep. Any longer in the ground and the black marks would have started to spread through them. As they grow, so does the damage. Next change all your clothes and sterilize your tools. Don’t even think about going into your greenhouse until you have done this and taken a bath and washed your hair and waited until the next day. Because the infection spreads fast and deadly and it affects tomatoes as well – they are of the same family as potatoes. It can decimate the whole crop within days if it gets a hold. Last year the TV guru got blight in his tomato house and the pictures of the whole crop turning brown and black and having to be thrown away were quite awful to see. It is something all gardeners dread, and in recent years it has become much more prevalent. The thinking is that it is borne on the rain, which is why Mr O G will never attempt to grow tomatoes out of doors, but once it arrives in the garden, it is very dangerous. We now go about our daily rounds with fear and trepidation and disinfectant.

Once potatoes are large, they taste very similar to any other potato so although the loss of the potato crop would be annoying and a great nuisance, we could put up with it. But the loss of the tomato crop would be a very different issue. We feel that tomatoes only taste good if they are home grown and we don’t even bother to buy them out of season. Not only do we look forward to the crop with eager anticipation and we wallow in the delights of the lavish summer tomato salads, and the great bowls of them lying around to be eaten like sweets, but also, as bottled purée and frozen salsa, our tomato crops sustain us throughout the year. It is our staple. I really think that if we lose the tomato crop I would feel like giving up gardening altogether and going to live in that chic little Paris flat I have coveted ever since my sojourns there as an exchange student. I would be able to walk upright and have clean hands and divide my days between the Tuileries gardens and the Musée d’Orsay. But of course Mr O G would never hear of such a thing. He would be quite devastated by a major crop loss, indeed his displeasure would probably be audible throughout the village, but he would never, ever give up. It just isn’t in his nature.

But there, perhaps, as he says, it will be perfectly all right and stop fussing woman.

In my trug yesterday there were some of the tiny potatoes, refugees from the blight, one thin and elderly leek, last of the mohicans, and some tiny carrot thinnings. (This thinning should be done on a calm day, preferably in the evening, and the carrots covered up immediately afterwards. This is because apparently the root fly can smell a carrot at four miles!) There was also a bunch of spinach and a bunch of coriander. I put the potatoes on to boil, and while that happened I put the carrots and the shredded leek into some olive oil and started to fry them very slowly, adding a teaspoon of sugar as soon as they were really hot so that they would caramelise. I then added shredded raw chicken breast and continued to stir fry until they were all cooked through – not very long. Then in went the chopped coriander, the spinach leaves wilted over the top and the whole lot tipped over the now cooked potatoes. Very quick, tasted nice and looked clever. Of course if you don’t like coriander, it doesn’t taste nice and you must dine on bread and cheese.

There is another problem. If you stand very quietly in the vegetable garden on a calm day you can hear a peculiar little pattering noise. It is the little black rape beetles tap-dancing on the cabbage leaves. This puts Mr O G into a rage because he knows it is the preliminary to reducing the cabbage leaves to lace. He digs deep into his memory and comes up with the fact that someone once told him that you should get a large piece of cardboard and cover it with grease, then trawl it over the tops of the cabbages, and the beetles will jump on to it and become stuck. I am very sceptical about this but he finds the necessary equipment in his lair and proceeds to try it out. Unbelievably, it works. The cardboard is thickly encrusted with a layer of the tiny black beetles.
Unfortunately, there is an equally thick layer of them left behind on the leaves. ‘Did he tell you what to do with the squillions who are left?’ I ask sarcastically. Mr O G simply replies that we shall obviously have to do it in relays. I sadly notice the plural, but he volunteers to do another shift that same evening. An odd sight he was too, trudging through his vegetables in the dusk, towing a cardboard sledge on a string, wearing his bright red nightshirt and muttering oaths and imprecations into his beard.

It must have been about then that it bit him. Whatever it was. His big toe swelled up swiftly and alarmingly. ‘That’s it’ he cries, falling back on his pillows – that’s it, I’ve got gout!’ And there he lies, despairingly enumerating all the disastrous diseases this could presage and making himself thoroughly miserable until the next morning when the swelling goes down and it is seen that it was an insect bite after all.

Today the trug contained potatoes, a small onion which Mr O G had pulled up by mistake whilst weeding, and another bunch of coriander, along with half a baby courgette which had suffered a disaster to the other half. We had salmon fillets bathed in a sauce constructed with the onion fried together with the bit of courgette, chopped coriander and some yoghurt stirred in, served on the now customary bed of new potatoes. The saying that ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ was never more apposite than in the household of a gardener who aspires to self sufficiency. The saving grace was the dessert which was the first of the new season’s gooseberries and they were delicious.

Mr O G is now lurking around moaning that I must stop rabbitting because it is time to go to bed, which it is, but who is to do the night shift on beetle greasing I do not know.