Gardening

In the hopeful spirit of the new season, the author attempts to add potatoes, succulents and more to her small garden. By Margaret Simons.

Spring garden tasks

Potato plants growing in a bag in springtime.
Credit: Mk Floral / Alamy

So spring is here, and with it all the usual clichés. Renewal of hope – even in the face of evidence. There is the scent of jasmine in inner-urban courtyards, which makes me recall my early 20s, living in scruffy share houses. Was there a single share house in Melbourne that did not have a jasmine plant?

Spring means new growth, swelling buds, thick white blossom on the entirely useless ornamental cherry trees that surround the aged-care home where my father lives. Somewhere, in a possibly fictitious rural idyll far beyond the bitumen, concrete and glass of the city, there will be pregnant ewes and gambolling lambs. Oh, and magpie swooping season is here. I have heard that in spring the male magpie’s testicles swell to 10 times their normal size, and testosterone swamps their tiny bird brains. Spring is a dangerous riot.

Writers try to avoid clichés, but gardeners rely on them. The round of the seasons, from harvest tipping over to decay and death and then new life again, the way in which this goes with that, are in the gardening world not clichés but archetypes. This operates in many ways, including at the level of a to-do list.

The cliché/archetype says that for every benefit there is a downside, so the to-do list is about dealing with that downside.

I planted a sprouting broccoli plant in autumn in one of the pots by my front door. It did well through winter, growing steadily in its sturdy brassica way, despite the cold. I was following the dictum I passed on in my last column – anything you plant in winter will go to seed in spring, so plant things with edible flowers and seed heads. Broccoli is one of those things.

Last week the broccoli plant sprouted and I harvested a modest bowl of crisp shoots for a stir-fry, and felt very smug and clever. The next day I went out to see the plant drooping and miserable. Closer inspection revealed that each tender shoot was covered in a furry crowd of grey aphids. Those little buggers inject viruses into the sap that make the plant wilt. Also, they don’t taste good.

So here is the first item on the to-do list. New growth? Spray for aphids. Or if you are like me and prefer not to use poison, you can sprinkle the aphids with diatomaceous earth. I use an old cocoa sprinkler, such as those used by baristas to adorn the tops of cappuccinos in coffee shops where chocolate on your coffee foam is not yet considered naff.

Diatomaceous earth is a powder made from the fossilised remains of tiny aquatic creatures. It is chiefly silica, and this gets into the exoskeletons of bugs and insects of all kinds, so they dehydrate and die. Oh yes, it’s organic, and also cruel. There is no simple morality in the vegetable garden.

As I killed the aphids, my neighbour passed by and said how he always admires my vegetable garden – which grows in the metre-wide strip between house and pavement and is thus on display to the world in a chaotic and messy counter to the gardening porn one sees in magazines. I told him that now I had aphids on everything. “Oh well,” he said. “Everything’s got to eat.”

And that’s right. Spring has caused me to reflect on our animal natures. We seem to be hardwired for certain kinds of behaviour. We prefer blue skies to grey. We will choose to sit by water, and picnic by lakes and streams. We like water even if it is a pathetic little backyard water feature that makes us want to pee. Houses at the top of hills are preferable to those at the bottom. These things seem to be universal. Hence the tendency of the local real estate agents to refer to the slight slope on which I live as a hill.

Also hardwired, I think, is our understanding of the round of the seasons, and the meaning we impose. I don’t really have a religion. Or perhaps I am a pagan. Death and resurrection? Heed the humble compost heap, where death is continuously transformed, if you can keep the rats out. Heed the rites of spring, the way in which the world comes to life again, weeds and all. We are on the upswing of the year, and there is no avoiding the barely controlled chaos of re-emergent life.

For example, there are the potatoes. I have no room for potatoes in my tiny inner-suburban courtyard; nevertheless, I am trying to grow some. I bought two potato grow bags a few weeks ago, together with seed sebago tubers, and placed them in the light well between my house and that of my semi-detached neighbour. Quite possibly, there will not be enough sun in the so-called light well to help the potatoes thrive, but parsley and coriander self-seed here with abandon, and the weeds grow tall – so I thought it was worth a go.

If you look at the advertising pictures for potato grow bags – you can buy them on eBay – you will see that they come with a flap at the bottom. You place the seed tubers on a layer of compost at the bottom, cover them with compost or potting mix and add more mix as the plants emerge above the soil line.

In theory, when the bag is full and the plant emerges from the top, you can open the flap at the bottom and be greeted with a crowd of new potatoes ready for harvest. The advertising pictures show the potatoes clustered closely, as though they have replaced the soil. As my gardening friend said to me, “It can’t possibly be like that.” We will see. I am ever optimistic.

The problem I am having is that the potato shoots are emerging too fast – possibly in a starved and desperate quest for light. I leave it a few days and they have gone all leggy, and I know I am behind with adding the compost and soil. There is never enough time to garden in spring. There is always more to be done. How do farmers do it? It is all I can do to manage a few square metres, plus pots.

And yet, despite my busyness, the swing of the season, the cliché of spring, is getting me in. Although my garden already has too many plants for the available space, I am full of new plans. I bought some hanging baskets at a garage sale last weekend, and am lining them with old rags. I will plant them with those annoyingly hardy and self-sufficient succulents and hang them on the fence in the back lane that divides my little cultivated space from the great wilderness of the McDonald’s car park.

Working out there this morning in the spring sunlight, drilling the hooks into the fence posts, I could hear the constant warbling cry of the McDonald’s drive-through: “Would you like fries with that?”

I have dug plastic meat trays out of the rubbish and used them as containers for little pots of basil and capsicum seeds, now growing in the warmth of my kitchen windowsill. Heaven knows where I will put them when they are ready for planting out. There is no room, but there is always room. Always room for one more.

The days grow longer, the weather warms – too much, too early, of course. And, despite all we know and all we fear, we turn to new activity and hope, like a plant twisting to meet the sun. It must be in our nature.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 7, 2019 as "Spring into action". Subscribe here.

Margaret Simons
is a freelance journalist, author and associate professor of journalism at Monash University. Her biography of Senator Penny Wong will be published by Black Inc on October 1.