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A Green Thought in a Green Shade

helen slavin gardenOne of the pleasures of a lazy Friday evening is Gardener’s World. There is nothing here that will kill your faith in humanity, quite the opposite. You are more likely to witness someone baring their soul about their passion for Nicotiana or Dianthus and their horticultural or botanical delight casts dappled and sunlit shadows on the mossy paths of your brain.

It is also possible to ogle Monty Don and his amazing man-robe of chunky sweaters and corduroy trews and breeches. I’m sorry but these are the true and proper words for such manly garments. His boots are the epitome of stout footwear. Monty, it appears, is not the kind of chap ever to be caught wearing pointy slip-ons or a fitted Italian shirt from M&S.  His shirt sleeves; a lovely stripy shirt, a battered blue shirt; are rolled up. Not for him muscles gained by posing in a gym, nope, he hefts wheelbarrows and wields spades.  As I’m writing this, he is in a hothouse poised atop a sturdy looking stepladder, pruning grapes with a pair of hairdressing scissors.

Monty Don is, however, the garden ornament, the decorative gnome shall we say, to the main event. The Gardening.

I have a town garden. It is not overly overlooked and it has the benefit of several trees, birch, beech, sycamore, elder.  Should Monty Don ever stop by for a mug of builder’s tea he would, most likely, have to employ a machete or scythe in order to enter at the creaky back gate.

My gardening style, as with all things, is less Versailles and more Verge.

I have a laissez-faire attitude to weeds and as a consequence I now have the definitive National Collection of them.  To my eye weeds are beautiful and fruitful. Bees buzz in and through the Carpenter’s Bugle, blue, great and coal tits forage amongst stems and seedheads. Who knew Bullfinches loved dandelion heads? Rename your weeds ‘wildflowers’ and relax. Right now my patch is a frothing tide of greens of all kinds, leaf shapes needled and feathered, a breakwater of blue and pink, of Columbines in their delicate and spiky pink and white and imperial purple. Nettles seethe and burst with cream flowers, food for butterflies. There’s Herb Robert and Shepherd’s Purse making its little heart-shaped explosive seedpods.

I don’t prick out or thin. The way I see it, if something has made the effort to germinate then I should give it a chance. This is good garden practice in my particular patch where the slugs eat like locusts. At least these slimy garden gourmets turn their noses up at the rustic fare of bittercress and rosebay willowherb, whereas my green beans and sunflowers are chomped at as soon as they break ground. There are squirrels, woodpigeons and woodmice too and so some seeds are munched before they see daylight.

There are hedgehogs under the pile of logs, a random and half-rotted collection of offcuts and old Christmas tree stumps. It was interesting to see my children, now both in their twenties, become six years old again over the hedgehog I found sheltering under the clump of woodrush, picking him up with considerable care and fascination and taking selfies.

The sparrowhawk sweeps chaos before her, her arrival causing the squirrel to shift her kits into the safety of the drey in the beech tree. All around birds are pelting into the trees like a hail of small stones, the alarm calls ringing out from every species. Finch, magpie, wren. Screeling sparrows diving like spitfires into the sanctuary of the woodpile to escape those talons.

Jackdaws have built their own metropolis in the chimney pots on our road and they rise, clacking and flapping into the sky, tumbling, acrobatic and athletic. I while away many a kitchen minute watching them perform trapeze acts on the fat ball holders that I put out. I am mother to jackdaws.

The small body of water down by the shed is called ‘The Pond’ but it is barely bigger than a bucket. That said it is crammed with Flag Iris, green spears and golden flower heads which make me think of Killarney and the red deer. The water plops and bubbles now and then with frogs and newts.

Cats are banished for killing the birds for sport. There is no sorrier sight than the draggled corpse of a blackbird being abandoned by a bored suburban cat. The blackbird could have been a main course for the sparrowhawk and might yet feed the jackdaws or the worms. The cat wastes it and lets the fat rats run free.

This year the nasturtiums have come up and also my foxglove seeds although they are tiny and will not look like anything much until next year. The slugs don’t seem to eat them and I note that my lone surviving pumpkin seedling is only slightly nibbled. Already the leaves are miniature parasols bristling with hairs.

At my old house where we had a small Victorian back yard, I filled the space with pots crammed with every available plant, chiefly buddleia and nasturtium and there was a vast and long established, ballet pink cottage rose. One year, I grew pumpkins. Note the plural. I managed somehow to grow a lot of pumpkins, probably qualifying as a full blown ‘Patch’. I planted them out in the skinny strips of soil alongside the concrete path and they grew like magic beanstalks. At one point my daughter, who was two at the time, could shelter from the rain by standing under the green umbrella like leaves.

So I’ve got my fingers crossed for this lone victor of the slug wars. I am enlisting the help of the hedgehog and the birds in keeping the slugs at bay. With a bit of luck, by Halloween I should be able to harvest the pumpkin and if the need arises to ride to a Faerie Ball I have my transport sorted, frog footmen and all.

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‘a highly original talent’ – Beryl Bainbridge


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