Advice from a (very) reluctant gardener

I spent most of the last post regaling you with tales of my laziness and incompetence in the garden. So you’re probably wondering where the hell I get off in offering any sort of advice. Apart from “Don’t listen to a word this man says.” But I believe that scars can be lessons, and that you learn from your mistakes.

With the benefit of hindsight, then, I’d like to present you with my thoughts, random and twisted as they are, on the gentle art of food production. Or How Not To Fuck Up, The Rob Way.

1. SALAD.

You can’t go wrong with salad, really. It’s redonkuously simple to raise from seed, takes no time at all to grow, and just keeps coming back. In fact, along with bastard nettles, salad has led me to the greatest appreciation of the tenacity and vigour of plant life. Short of dumping a Bhopal worth of toxic nasties onto it, it’ll keep on coming.

A packet of mixed varieties of the kind of interesting leaves that will set you back three quid per pillow pack in Tesco can be had for a pittance, or free if you keep your eye on the gardening mags for cover-mounts. Open pack, scatter a pinch of seeds in a pot of fresh compost, water, leave, wait two weeks. Bingo. Gourmet salad that will keep coming up after several pickings, but if you scatter another pinch of seeds into the same pot every couple of weeks that, my friends, is salad for the summer.

Bear in mind though, that this needs a careful wash and a pick over before serving. And you might want to keep an eye out for stray nasties. Allow me to illustrate:

Things I have found in my salad pot while harvesting for dinner:

a) animal faeces

b) wormy slug things

c) nettles

A subset:

Things a thorough wash will remove from your carefully selected leaves:

a) animal faeces

And another:

Things I have fished out of salad moments before serving it to guests:

c) nettles

Go ahead, do the maths. I can wait.

2. WEEDS WILL SUCK OUT ANY JOY YOU FIND IN GARDENING

Some cooks, notably Hugh Fearlessly-Eatsitall, are vocal in their support of the nutritional benefits and flavour of nettles. I am of the opinion that the vile toxin in this most evil of plants has percolated into his brain and is forcing him to do it’s bidding.

He has become a slave to the pernicious weed, and he wants us to come along with him to his happy little plant utopia. I know different. I have seen what these things look like. I know what these things can do. I have grabbed for something that looks like wild rocket, and come up with a bouquet of barbed wire that literally had me crying with pain.

Believe me, when you’ve pulled out a tap root as tall as you are, and still not be certain that you’ve got the whole thing, then you know that you are facing an enemy that deserves both your respect and your utter, unswerving emnity. It’s like the Day Of The Triffids out there, people, and if you’re unprepared the evil stingy little bastards will have you.

I have been known to extol the use of of napalm at the copse end. Like Ripley says, it’s the only way to be sure.

Right. Sorry. Where was I again?

Oh yeah. Nettle soup. Don’t do it. Your humanity will thank you.

3. WHEN IT COMES TO GARDENING OPINIONS, LIKE ARSEHOLES, ARE EVERYWHERE. NO WAIT THAT’S NOT QUITE RIGHT.

I guess this is the point where you’d be justifed in yelling at me. Oh poor Rob, boo hoo hoo, look at me with my acres of land that gives me mild backache and and a thin excuse to wallow in undeserved existential angst. Some of us, that is, most of us, have to make do with the sort of postage stamp plot you gleefully walked away from in 2004, if we even have a patch of ground to hang a back door from. We don’t get the option of overwhelming ourselves with a horticultural excess, thank you very much Alan Titchmarsh, so less of the smuggery, you patronising git.

Which is fair enough. My woes are insignificant, and are born from a wealth of opportunity and space in which I could make my mistakes. I don’t claim to be any kind of expert. In fact I am the opposite. I am the sort of bumbling idiot that would make a rank amateur look like Monty Don, so I once again advise you to approach any advice I’m offering as hard-won, covered in bruises and mud, and to be taken with a heaped double handful of Maldon’s finest.

I do have a point here, believe it or don’t. If you have any kind of interest in throwing seeds into dirt and gnawing on the leafy results, then there is a shedful of advice and info out there which is maddeningly patronising and wildly contradictory.

For example. There’s a strong argument that one should grow the kind of crops that would be difficult or expensive to source in the shops. Kohl rabi, to name one. Cardoon. Celariac.

Which makes sense, until you’re faced with a bed full of kohl rabi, cardoon and celeriac and you realise that a) you have no idea what to do with it and b) no-one you know, including you, can eat the rank stuff. Seriously. Cardoon is a more fibrous, less tasty form of celery. Celeriac is like a turnip crossed with a football, in both appearance and flavour. Kohl rabi … fuck knows. Not a clue. Steam it until it goes gluey, then use it to plaster a wall for all I know. Or care.

So, yes, it may seem blatantly bloody obvious, and I can feel you winding up for another rant, but listen. Here’s my handful of change. Just grow what you like to eat. Root crops for definate. You can grow carrots and cabbage in a bucket if you have the slightest bit of outdoor space. Spuds can go in a planter, and even if you just grow newies it’s worth it. There’s a real difference in flavour if a new potato lands on your plate within an hour or so of coming out of the dirt.

And of course, tomatoes and chilis can be house plants as long as you’re vigilant and cruel with the foliage.

Now, to prove the point I made above, I’m going to merrily go ahead and contradict myself.

It’s worth growing exotic salads, as they’re quick to grow and easy to bin once you discover that mizuna isn’t your thing (heathen. It’s delicious.) And if you do have the space, it’s worth maybe trying one thing you wouldn’t usually pick up from Sainsbury’s. I developed a liking for courgettes after planting a couple on a whim, and there’s a plant in my small veg patch now that I’ve just started to crop from. Courgette fritters are the best, trust me.

But if you’ve only got counter or sill space then I SWEAR TO GOD YOU’RE AN IDIOT IF THERE AREN’T HERB PLANTS TAKING UP SOME OF IT. Attractive, fragrant, multiple uses, and may I once again stress, dirt in a pot, seeds, water, sunlight, bit of time, DONE. If you’re buying pot herbs or worse still, packets of cut herbs from Morrison’s, then you’re a mug. Unless your idea of herbs is that green confetti that you get out of a Schwartz pot. In which case just … go away. Really. Just go away.

A pot each of basil, thyme, rosemary and parsley will set you up as the kind of person that understands the function of a kitchen, that it’s not just a room to keep the microwave and kettle. And that, my friend, makes you the kind of person that is worth knowing, talking to, or snogging.

4. DO IT FOR A REASON.

I guess what I’ve been trying to say all along is that my whole reason for going out in the garden in the first place was to improve my skills as a cook. Fresher ingredients make for a better meal. I’ll admit to monomania when it comes to the subject. If I can’t eat it, it’s really not my kind of thing.

Flowers and shrubs are ok, I suppose, in a fragrant sheltery kind of a way, but they’re just kind of … there, really. Taking up valuable carrot-growing space. Food from the earth is where it’s at for me. It’s the motivation for me to pick up a spade, pull on my gardening pants and get out there.

At one point, I even flirted with the idea of following the example of our next door neighbours and keeping chickens and a goat. Until I was quietly taken aside by my lovely wife.

“Rob,” she said, sitting me down and then sitting on me just to make sure I was listening. She may have wiggled a bit to really catch my attention. “You hate eggs, and you barely have the patience to look after a potato, let alone anything with a pulse. I’m not having the SWAT division of the RSPCA dropping in on us after you start running the animal equivalent of Aushwitz.”

She’s right, of course, curse every teeny tiny perfect inch of her. Vegetables very nearly got the better of me two years ago. That can’t happen again.

I now have one small plot, running courgette, butternut squash and cucumber plants. A couple of pots of chilis. A growbag with a couple of varieties of tomatoes. The aforementioned plethora of herbs and salad. And that’s it. Come the winter I’ll probably clear the ground and do cabbage, carrots and beetroot. Maybe some garlic and onion sets. Perhaps a planter of spuds when the new season seed potatoes arrive. But I’m keeping it at a proven acceptable level, and the ground clearance we worked so hard on means that the evil weeds should not present so much of a problem (ha ha famous last words).

I feel better about the copse end today than I have done in years. It feels like a place to relax, have a drink, and watch the vegetables grow.

And that, my patient, patient Readership, is what gardening is all about to me.

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Rob

Writer. Film-maker. Cartoonist. Cook. Lover.

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