When we passed through New Hampshire en route home after our holiday in Maine earlier this year, Kiera lead us to the wonderful Portsmouth Book & Bar. It was there that I picked up a copy (for $5) of My Summer in a Garden written by Charles Dudley Warner in 1870. It is a delightful book, full of surprising and amusing insights into the pursuit of gardening.
In the introduction, written by Allan Gurganus, a distinction is made between “gardeners (and) those who wish to prettify their yards.” My garden is certainly not a pretty one. That is not to say that I didn’t set out to create a pretty garden, it just didn’t turn out that way. I like pretty gardens, they appeal to my latent sense of orderliness. One knows immediately who the sovereign is when you enter the realm of weed free, manicured lawns and colour coordinated, insect free flowers and shrubs. And it sure ain’t nature!
My Summer in a Garden is part of the Modern Library Gardening Series and Michael Pollan writes an introduction to the collection in which he likens the garden to an arena rather than a refuge. I can imagine gardeners as valiant gladiators going into combat against invasives and invaders, the only armour being uv protection hats and gloves. And, at the end of the day, Mother Nature is always there on her throne to give the wasted and wounded warriors a pollice verso.
In the 7th week of his summer in the garden, Charles Dudley Warner writes:
I am more and more impressed, as summer goes on, with the inequality of man’s fight with Nature ….. The minute (man) begins to clear a spot larger than he needs to sleep in for a night, and try to have his own way in the least, Nature is at once up, and vigilant, and contests him at every step with all her ingenuity and unwearied vigor. This talk of subduing Nature is pretty much nonsense. I do not intend to surrender in the midst of the summer campaign, yet I cannot but think how much more peaceful my relations would now be with the primal forces, if I had let Nature make the garden according to her own notion.
When one gets almost weary of the struggle, she is as fresh as at the beginning, – just, in fact, ready for the fray. I, for my part, begin to appreciate the value of frost and snow; for they give the husbandman a little peace, and enable him, for a season, to contemplate his incessant foe subdued. I do not wonder that the tropical people, where Nature never goes to sleep, give it up, and sit in lazy acquiescence.
When I took the decision to let the natural bush grow up into the garden, I really didn’t take into account that wildlife would follow. Now, I love the birds that visit us and wouldn’t have it any other way, but they do make an awful mess! Weavers strip the leaves off branches to clear space for their nests, wagtails have taken to perching on the veranda furniture and poeping all over it, francolins (spurfowl) scratch up all the little perennial seedlings in the flower beds, and mousebirds have a penchant for eating lampranthus (vygie) flowers.
As much as they make a mess, birds don’t really destroy a garden. They leave that to buck and rodents. It has been so terribly dry here that the buck, for the first time, are coming into the garden to look for food. I have never seen the garden looking so depleted. We are constantly devising methods to thwart them. Our recent experiment has been to collect buck droppings and soak them, in a plastic bag with holes, in a bucket of water. We then use the liquid to water the plants being munched by the buck, mostly aggies, bulbines, day lilies and roses, all of which grow in great profusion in my garden. Apparently buck will not eat any plants smelling of buck poo. Obviously I’m not keen to apply this to our veggies so we have had to make our allotment buck proof by closing up the sides with extra shade cloth and wire.
The rats are more difficult to keep out. We have an owl box but no tenants. In fact I haven’t noticed many owls about. The rats are helping themselves to the veg seedlings. I am now looking for an electrical rat trap that we can put in the allotment to deter them from annihilating all our seedlings. Our neighbour has a ginger tom that comes prowling around here at night so perhaps he will help to keep the rodent population down. I don’t want to encourage him though because of all the birds we have in the garden. Layla surprised us all by catching and killing a couple of rats and earned herself some biltong treats.
And then, of course there is the weather. Spring has had a slow start this year. Our first rains came only a few days ago after several weeks of hot, dry and windy conditions. We desperately need more rain as the water that we use to irrigate the field and the allotment is running worryingly low.
C D W observes:
The principal value of a (vegetable) garden is not understood. It is not to give the possessor vegetables and fruit (that can be better and cheaper done by the market-gardeners), but to teach him patience and philosophy, and the higher virtues, – hope deferred, and expectations blighted, leading directly to resignation, and sometimes to alienation.
Indeed! So what is growing in the garden?
In the veg garden (aka the allotment) we have the first of the spring veggies coming on. These are some of my favourite greens: asparagus, artichokes, broad beans and sugar snap peas. The sugar snap peas were badly frosted in June and died right back. We left them (out of laziness) and they recovered and are now producing sweet crunchy pods at a very rapid rate. It just goes to show! There are also plenty of the old standbys of veg gardens the world over – spinach and lettuce.
We transplanted about 100 strawberry plants out of the allotment into the field adjacent to the orchard as well as some raspberry and blackberry canes and a couple of blueberry bushes. They have all taken and are looking good. We also planted in the field potatoes, mealies, pumpkin, squash and onions. (Strangely enough, the rats and buck have not discovered them yet.) This leaves more room in the allotment for cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, tomatoes, carrots, leeks, gems, courgettes and beans. None of these are doing much at the moment.
The garden is looking very bleak; the only colour is coming from fruit tree blossom and azaleas. Hopefully the modicum of rain that we had recently will spur things on a bit.