Ground rules for the vegetable patch
You want to grow to love your garden, not hate it. I adore my vegetable patch – but it is too large
Vegetable patch. The labour in the garden may be long but the rewards are lasting. Photograph: Getty Images
From mid July to late August the bounty from the vegetable garden almost makes up for the toil, sweat and tears that went into its making.
The corn is as high as a baby elephant’s eye; pendulous peas and beans cascade from their canes; potato plants blossom in purple and white; leeks, carrots, and parsnips are in various shades of green leaf and the lettuce explodes. My delight in the season of abundance briefly disguises the fact that the garden is way past its best.
Fifteen years ago, when we bought our hillside cottage on a Wicklow acre I thought I was lord of a vast domain. My wife and I dreamt of flower beds, fruit trees, chicken runs and bean rows which, in time, all came to be. But I never really considered the issue of future maintenance.
In those eager, early days I cleared a corner and threw down onion, carrot and lettuce seeds. The onions never happened, the carrots were measly, but the lettuce was profuse. I knew nothing of ‘thinning out’ and ended up with a shrubbery of lettuce bushes. Any visitor that first summer left with a sack full of leaves, whether they wished to or not.
Thus encouraged I laboured with stakes, coloured twine, and a pile of reclaimed planks and flagstones. I marked out a cat’s cradle of interlaced string on the most nearly level part of the field. And over the following year it evolved into four large raised beds separated by partly paved paths. But time has passed and decay has taken its toll.
The planks that define the beds are mouldering and crumbling; the sand covered matting beneath the path verges seems to encourage weeds rather than prevent them; the soil is nearly exhausted and there has been earth creep. The rotting planks are tilting and warped and the flagstones are undulating and askew.
If I had taken advice I might have levelled the ground first; and used treated wood for the beds; and completely paved the paths between them. Actually, I should have observed my wife. She was responsible for flowers but she dug no beds. She bought a lot of large pots, got me to unload them then filled them with bulbs, annuals and flowering bushes.
Arrayed along the front of the white cottage they achieve maximum impact with minimal effort. And more recently she unveiled a cunning ‘ecological’ plan to leave a corner of the acre alone – this allows wild flowers to thrive for the benefit of butterflies and bees. It also reduces mowing, to the benefit of me.
Anyone thrilled to be buying a house with a bit of land should curb their enthusiasm, restrain their ambition and consider the upkeep required.
You want to grow to love your garden, not hate it. I have never despised my vegetable patch – right now I admire and adore it – but it is too large and I have often wept and cursed in it. The soil is the stoniest in Wicklow – I have blunted my fingers and torn my nails more times than I can remember. And I must have spent months of my life weeding.
It’s a war of attrition. Early on I weeded regularly and intensively. I learnt to dig deep for the roots of perennial weeds like dock leaves and dandelions, otherwise they just returned, vigorous and relentless. When I finally had the weeds at bay, I acquired a big load of horse manure to fertilise the plot. Insufficiently rotted the manure was also full of undigested seed. It was like sowing turbo-charged grass in every bed. The consequent weeding was gruelling, perpetual and I cried often.
After this extraordinary summer, the recent brief bursts of rain have been horticultural rocket fuel to the weeds. I have needed help and my sons have finally proved more useful than they once were.
Now they are open to bribes and often lend a hand with cheerful chat – until they inevitably slip away to kick a ball at the far end of the field leaving me to work alone. This is mostly the case.
My wife refers to “Your vegetable garden” ascribing ownership and thereby responsibility to me. But how do you define ownership? Who is the garden actually for? I certainly do most of the work, but Cui Bono. who benefits?
I like parsnips and she doesn’t. I grow one small row of these. She loves beans and I am not so keen. This year I planted five varieties. I am merely making an observation.
The labour in the garden may be long but the rewards are lasting. I grin when I think of the younger one voraciously gnawing a fresh corn cob slathered in butter. And I will never forget when the older boy was three. It was a long wet, unrelentingly dreary summer. In the damp vegetable garden I handed him an opened pea pod, then another, then another. He gorged himself, pausing only to say “more please Daddy”.
In Sight of Yellow Mountain by Philip Judge is published by Gill Books