Learning lessons in the garden
The gardening enthusiast, even one as untutored and unskilled as I, is sure to find something new worth learning with the passing of every year. And each twelve-month is guaranteed to be different from the last, so that the lessons of 2017 are bound to differ from those of 2016.
Fair Hermione - she of the green fingers and the infinite patience - well knows her hydrangeas from her hollyhocks, her French beans from her Spanish onions.
She is also grimly aware that she is saddled with a spouse who is to horticulture as Elton John is to sober suiting.
Where she has method, I have madness. Where she is meticulous and purposeful, I bring mayhem and panic. Where she draws wisdom from failure, I blunder around repeating past errors.
Pruning the wrong stems at the wrong time of year, over-watering to the point of drowning, pulling up perfectly good plants along with the weeds - I have done them all.
Worse, I have done them all and then done them all again, forever emerging as baffled as before.
In an effort to put some manners on her bull-in-a-china-shop spouse, Hermione called me into the kitchen the other day and sat me down at the table.
She slipped into the seat opposite, took gentle hold of my hands, and looked at me with such solemn expression I thought she was poised to tell me she had contracted some horrible wasting disease.
But no, thank goodness, she merely wished to say that though she loved me dearly, she had decided to cease giving me lectures on the care of cucumbers or on the fertilisation of fruit trees or on any other aspect of the garden.
No more helpful hints on the selection of varieties, on the taking of cuttings, on irrigation or propagation.
All cooperation, education, guidance and information would cease, she declared sadly, until some indication is given that I am capable of benefiting from her wisdom.
She detached her delicate hand from my rough mitt and pushed a blank sheet of paper with a pen across the table to me.
She suggested that, as a first step towards regaining her trust and confidence, I should write down four or five items of interest from the year past. Then she walked out of the room, the great teacher leaving the class joker to his homework.
I confess that my initial reaction was to sulk, coming within an ace of crumpling up her paper and tossing her pen into the fire.
However, wiser counsel prevailed and I applied my mind to the task assigned, with the following results:
One. There is a correct way to grow tomatoes. The secret lies in nipping out the little side-shoots. Left to their own devices, each tomato plant will concentrate on colonising as much of the greenhouse as it can rather than on production of tomatoes. Leave a side-shoot un-nipped and a week later the plant has all but doubled in size. Leave half a dozen side-shoots un-nipped and the greenhouse suddenly has all the impenetrable characteristics of a Brazilian rain forest. Next year, nipping will be done early and often.
Two. Ferns give lethal paper-style cuts. Dear Uncle Bob has a theory that ferns offer a great source of soil nutrients which is much overlooked. The great old man, who speaks with the authority of one who wins garden show prizes by the dozen, persuaded me that I should tear out mounds of the ferns which grow so plentifully along the ditches of the Rolling Acres once they turned brown and dry, with a view to making compost. I set about the task with glee but emerged from the field with blood soaked hands, looking like something out of a horror movie. Next year, ferns will be gathered with gloves worn.
Three. Sprouts are caterpillar magnets. Next year have netting ready to keep out the butterflies.
Four. Do not always expect a crop first time around. Next year, maybe with luck there will be a few hazelnuts and/or apricots.
Five. Parsnips are tricky. Next year, apply plenty of chicken manure.
There's five, Hermione. Now will you please talk to me again?