Everything In the Garden's Lovely!

Something strange has happened to me. I'm not sure precisely when. Probably a couple of years after IKEA became a desirable browsing destination, and a very short while after I began trawling through the "classic telly" section on Amazon. But sometime around then I began becoming … a gardener. Now I'm not suggesting for one moment that I am in any way good at it. Or at all qualified to call myself a proper gardener. But over the past few years I've found myself willingly spending more & more time in the garden. And not just to sit down & drink a few glasses of wine, in case you were wondering.

In truth, my parents have always gardened. Well, my Mum has. Dad is more of a heavy labourer & lawnmower operator – he even has the socks to prove it! My Granddad Buckler was a very keen gardener. At one time, long before I was born, he kept an allotment, but I remember him working in his really quite small garden behind his terraced house. Remarkably, given the size of it, he managed to fit in a shed, a greenhouse, lots & lots of flower beds & a lawn. Although to call it a lawn was, perhaps, a bit of an exaggeration. In reality it was a patch of grass just big enough to accommodate his deckchair. But he grew many flowers –  in particular I remember sweetpeas & chrysanthemums – & tomatoes. He used to try to get me involved. But, just like most kids, I really only saw the garden as somewhere to play & certainly not a place that involved hard work!

As I grew older, I just assumed that I wasn't supposed to spend much time in the garden at all. I mean, I've had allergies since I was a toddler. I sneeze. I wheeze. My eyes get red & swollen. I'm asthmatic. My skin flares up if I touch the leaves of some quite common plants like tomatoes or radishes. And I'm just about as pale as it's possible to be, meaning any potential exposure to strong sunlight has to be carefully blocked out. So outdoors, particularly in a garden, is about as hostile an environment for me as it's possible to get.  But somehow, in the intervening years I've overcome, or chosen to ignore those issues &, on a fine day at least, it's to the garden where I'm most drawn. Protected by a hat, sunglasses, long sleeves &  a thick coating of SPF50 & keeping my inhaler close at hand, I may look like I'm preparing for chemical warfare, but at I'm having a ball!. 

I've learned there's little more therapeutic than growing something – particularly something you can eat – in your own garden or pot! After all, you can't hurry Mother Nature. You might wish you could be eating your own carrots a few days after you plant the seeds, but that's not going to happen. Planting anything forces you to be patient. You can feed and water, take care of your precious produce, but you cannot speed up their growth. Just waiting for your hard work to come, literally, to fruition is therapy enough. But even the most impatient amongst us can sow and grow some fresh produce that'll be ready to eat within a few weeks. Salad leaves & radishes are very quick growers &, don't take up much space either. In fact, when it comes to salad leaves you have to be careful not to plant too much at a time, or you'll never be able to eat everything you grow. It was salad that got me started. But it was only when I discovered just how easy it was to grow your own garlic that things really took off. This year will be my fourth crop. Over the last three years, harvesting in late summer, I've managed to keep the house in garlic until about the end of March. When you consider the price of a bulb of garlic in the supermarkets, it's clear that growing your own can save a lot of money.A bag of mixed salad seeds, from which you can grow mountains of salad, costs even less than one 150g bag of mixed salad leaves at the local supermarket.

You can nestle herbs with floral planters for a lovely, colourful & useful effect.

 And you don't have a great pile of it left over and rotting away in the fridge either. You can nip out to the garden or balcony and pick it as & when you need it. And it couldn't be any fresher! Most veggie surpluses can be stored well. Chillies, for example, freeze beautifully & this is why we are still using up last year's frozen jalapeno harvest.

This year I'm growing, or at least trying to grow, garlic, peas, salad onions, salad leaves, onions, carrots, beetroot, spinach, sweet potatoes, chillies, aubergine, peppers, mange touts and sweetcorn. There are two apples, one pear and one peach growing on the patio trees, and plenty of strawberries, raspberries and blueberries too. Oh, and I might just be getting what for me is a record-breaking yield of figs.  And it's terrific fun. 

 You can pack quite a lot of veg on to even a small patio (raspberries, sweetcorn, herbs, carrots, beetroot & spinach in this photo). Just don't forget the scarecrow to protect your crops.

I'm not suggesting that everything will produce a bountiful harvest. Doubtless some of what I've sewn will produce nothing. Last year I carefully tended to my sweet potatoes and was rewarded with beautiful leafy green, healthy-looking plants but absolutely no sweet potatoes whatsoever! In previous years I've lost my baby pumpkins to squirrels, had onions pulled out by blackbirds and, having successfully defended my almost mature cabbages and brussels sprouts against caterpillars, lost them to a plague of blackfly.Yes, that's disheartening. But it's a learning process too and it makes it even more special when you are able to nip out into the garden to get some fresh peas to go with Sunday lunch, or some sweet, ripe berries for a healthy and tasty treat. 

 There's a lot of talk these days about buying local and seasonal and there's no better way than growing your own to turn those food miles into food inches.

 And it's surprising how, when you know how inexpensive growing your fruit and veggies can be, you suddenly notice every penny you have to spend on bought-in produce.

But this change of heart has been motivated by more than economics. I've found that a couple of hours in the garden, apart from being good physical exercise, is mentally revitalising too. There is simply nothing more calming than spending time outside with the birdsong echoing all around you. And I've begun to appreciate things I've always avoided until now. Those nasty little woodlice that hide under plant pots and stones?  The ones you want to squash the instant you see them? Well, as unattractive as they are, woodlice form an important part of the rotting process, enriching the soil for future crops. Of course spiders, not my favourite bugs, eat many of the creatures that attack our plants so we really ought to leave them alone too. But my natural instinct is to immediately get rid of any arachnid I spot or, if it's particularly large get someone else to do this. 

But becoming garden friendly has made me a bit more critter savvy. And this is why yesterday, amazing even myself, I allowed a nest of hundreds of miniscule baby garden spiders to go on their merry way rather than squish the lot. It's really gotten to the point where I barely recognise myself! But, all in all, all this gardening lark, and the changes it's brought to my life, aren't worrying me. After all it's a great way to stay in-tune with the seasons, get some fresh air and help the environment. And, it seems, growing your own has never been more popular, even with the younger set (of which I'd like to think I still am!). Perhaps it's the hard times we're all experiencing. Perhaps it's the wave of nostalgia that seems to pervade the entire nation at present. Or maybe it's just that more and more people are realising that our high-tech existence needs a low-tech, at-one-with-nature antidote and that dabbling in the garden is just that.

It's fairly easy to grow a good crop of garlic in pots, meaning you can make good use of any available space.

But, as I sit on my lovely outdoor rocking chair, listening to that birdsong, and taking time to smell the flowers, it does occur to me that the gardener in me might just be peeking through because I'm no longer of 'clubbing' age. So far I've managed to convince myself that I have simply seen the light and that I was never really interested in dancing around my handbag in the first place. But just in case, so me a favour? If I ever start banging on about needing new slippers, please somebody shake me. Very, very hard.

The promise of juicy blueberries to come

For the first time our grapevines have flowers! Will there be grapes to follow?