Saturday, 21 February 2009

It's gardening time

Here we are, the last week of February, the time that conventionally marked the start of gardening season at FatBigot Towers. Not for the last few years, sadly, concerns about the old damaged ticker not being able to withstand the effort required forced abstinence from digging and weeding; only the compost heaps have been maintained in anything like good order. But after a splendid winter containing sufficient cold to kill off vast numbers of detrimental bugs, I will waddle outside tomorrow, exhume a fork from the shed and set about bringing new life to the flower borders and veggy patch.

A rather virulent argument seems to have broken out at Mr Kitchen's place over the desirability of turning land over for growing vegetable in order to reduce dependence on imported produce. Apparently the National Trust is campaigning for companies to make land available and has gained the support of Monty Don, the former presenter of Gardeners World on the BBC. My own love of gardening owes a lot to Gardeners World and the practical advice and guidance given in years gone by on that programme, back when it was about gardening rather than design and politics. Percy Thrower, Peter Seabrook and, in particular, Geoff Hamilton were absolute masters at showing how simple most gardening tasks are. When Mr Hamilton died and Alan Tichmarsh took over the old ways continued for a time but then there was more about inventive uses for concrete and stainless steel, more bigoted nonsense about not using pesticides, more utter humbug about global warming and less about dibbing and potting-on. All very well for those of us who had learned the techniques, but not a lot of use in teaching new potential gardeners how to actually do stuff. Since Mr Don's enforced retirement from the programme last year on health grounds a new presenter was found, Toby Buckland, who has returned to the Thrower-Seabrook-Hamilton ways, and not before time. Because it's on the BBC he is required to mention climate change at least three times every show, but you can see it's just a script and not something that gets in the way of showing how to separate herbacious perennials, aerate a lawn and make life miserable for slugs.

I can see a point to the National Trust's idea. To the extent that there are people who would like to grow their own fruit and veg but don't have anywhere to do it, making more small plots available for rent will help to meet that frustrated demand. The irritation is that this scheme is being promoted a a way to limit this country's dependence on imported fruit and vegetables. That is utter nonsense. Any thought that it will make a major difference to the amount of food we buy is simply laughable. If you really know what you are doing and have a lot of time to do it you can grow enough veg to feed the family all year in a plot of fifty feet by a hundred. Mind you, you'd have to plan your crops very carefully, have decent harvests of everything and make sure you can store large quantities of produce between harvest time and consumption. It works for some, but only for some. And when we do grow our own the inevitable result is that we don't buy the very things we have grown. So, during British runner bean season we eat runner beans from the garden not from the shops. At that time the runner beans in the shops are British runner beans for the very simple reason that it is British runner bean season and they are cheaper for the shops to buy than those grown overseas. Of course it is possible to store surplus produce for eating during the off-season and that will cut down on purchases of imports, but storage is a far more difficult process than growing and I cannot see how any significant impact is likely to be made. What seems reasonably certain is that any significant increase in grow-your-own will impact most directly on British farmers.

I don't grow my own veg out of a desire to deprive either British or foreign farmers of income. I do so because I enjoy the whole exercise. They also taste much better than anything I can buy in the shops, but that would not be sufficient reason if I did not enjoy growing them. For me it is exciting to see seeds turn into seedlings, and seedlings turn into little plants, and little plants turn into big plants, and big plants provide something tasty. But like all hobbies, it is not for everyone. I can't understand why anyone would want to go fishing, but others enjoy it. I can't understand why anyone would want to swim, but others enjoy it. If it comes to that I can't understand why anyone would want to eat cauliflower or tofu, or drink carrot juice or Dr Pepper, or listen to (c)rap music, or watch 95% of the twaddle available on our hundreds of television channels, or read Mills & Boon romance novels. We all have different interests and different tastes. It is sheer blind folly to think that encouraging people to grow their own veg is going to get people doing something they don't enjoy, just as it is sheer blind folly to think Jamie Oliver's skills will ever persuade fat chavs in leggings to turn from pizza and chips to home made coq-au-vin with steamed broccoli florettes and dauphinoise potatoes.

I don't have any desire to stop the National Trust encouraging people to give gardening a try. But I do wish it would stop making false claims about the potential benefits. If they were really concerned about levels of imports of fruit and veg they should be campaigning against the EU's truly evil Common Agricultural Policy. It is absurd to burble-on about people growing their own when our farmers have thousands of acres of prime fertile soil left unused each year because the EU requires it.

Potatoes, onions, carrots, runner beans and a winter cabbage this year, I think. Yes, they always grow well here and the neighbours love getting the surplus.


Roger Sowell said...

Mr. FB,

Good for you, sir! As some wag said, only an optimist plants a garden! As to non-strenuous gardening, have you looked around for suitable tools in Brookstone's site?

An economics question, if I might impose: What does the UK use for the cost/benefit ratio for air pollutants? Perhaps in £/Ton-year?


Roger E. Sowell

Bob's Head Revisited said...

Spuds, onions, broad beans, sprouts and carrots for me this year, FB Spuds are already chitting. It's perhaps sad but March is an exciting (and busy) time at Bobshead Mansions. I'm out there in my wellies going slightly mad.
Sorry, that's not much to do with your excellent post, is it?

I might even do a ridiculous post on my blog just about gardening, and they'll be flowers involved too. Maybe I should start a gardening blog? Shut up Bob.

TheFatBigot said...

I tried some so-called "labour saving" gardening tools a few years back Mr Sowell. Apart from the motorised ones, none of them are a patch on the original; so I stick to my old fork.

As for the cost-benefit analysis of air pollutants, I'm afraid I haven't a clue what measure is used. Of course the best measure is washing on a washing line. If it gets dirty and smelly the pollution level is too high. Works every time.

woman on a raft said...

I commend to you the dwarf stringless beans my friend experimented with last season. A small wigwam in a pot by the kitchen door was all that was needed - he ended up supplying the house next door, too. The beans can be planted direct at two week intervals, two at the bottom of each cane, and left to get on with it, so long as they get a drink. Each plant matures in turn and he just reached out of the door and picked a dinner's worth, straight off the vine and briefly in to the pan. No processing or storage problems whatsoever.

I'm looking at tomatoes because despite the thousands of acres under glass, they seem to be priced per tom. Last year I looked after a neighbour's plants for a few days and in return I could keep what ever ripened on those nights - scrummy. Tomatoes are also very easy to process in to stews, sauces and chutneys if there is get a glut.

My fig tree - bought as a whip for £7 - produced about £2 worth of fruit in its first year and I'm hoping it will do better this year, perhaps reaching break-even. Fig trees have to be kept in pots or else they bolt, but they seem happy enough so long as they can lean up against a sunny wall. They appear to like being near humans.

The other top-value plant is lemon balm (melissa). You can't eat it in the winter as it is too bitter and puts on a winter coat, but from March to September you can pick the lemony leaves straight off and have them in salads and sandwiches. The bees like the flowers. It gets no pests, looks after itself and is virtually indestructible even in a drought, although it will tend to become too strong tasting at that point. The plants are cheap or free if you can find someone to give you a shake of a seed-head. However, it is not a companion plant; something in its roots is very good at denying any other plants a foothold. It can therefore be useful where you want to control growth; an awkward corner or perhaps under a bench. Plant lemon balm and keep it clipped low - only takes a moment - and you will not be troubled by insurgent dandylions.

Greenfinger said...

Oh yeah. It's gardening time and 27 days before Spring! I hope you're all preparing for this season for some gardening time again! Tis' kinda cold out here but I hope you'll enjoy this Spring season. God bless!

TheFatBigot said...

I have tried dwarf beans before, Mrs Raft, somehow they don't suit my abused taste buds as well as a nice old-fashioned runner such as a Scarlet Emperor (my all-time fave).

As for tomatoes, I'm with you all the way. Have grown them some years when I had little other use for my very small greenhouse. What a sheer delight they are compared to shop-bought. It seems that the lighter and more delicate the item, the more taste is lost by the time it hits the shops.

If only we could eat bindweed.

Alex Cull said...

Well said, the FatBigot! I've started doing a little gardening myself - beans, pak choi (the slugs loved that) and rocket, which was a great success last summer. It's highly rewarding but as you point out, it's a hobby. If my livelihood depended on it, it would become a worrisome, back-breaking chore with no guarantee of a surplus or a full stomach at the end of it all. I agree, subsistence living is not the way forward.