Gardening

Even in the depths of winter, or the most troubled of times, there will be a few usual suspects in the garden that can worm their way into your heart. By Margaret Simons.

Winter’s bounty

A basket of wild herbs and edible flowers, including chickweed and mallow.
Credit: Sandra Roesch / Alamy

A weed is a plant in the wrong position, the saying goes. So I shouldn’t complain that when the rest of the garden is entering its most boring, dormant season the chickweed is going berserk, looping over all the pots, dangling from the hanging baskets and tangling the stems of the brassicas. Life springs eternal, it seems, but not necessarily the life we want.

The chickweed grows between my sulky lettuces and clambers up the broad beans. It doesn’t mind the cold, and its seeds apparently survive the animal warmth of the compost heap, since my tubs of homemade potting mix assembled from compost, sand and coconut fibre spring chickweed before any other plant can get a start.

They call it chickweed because chickens like to eat it, according to the new “what plant is that” app I have on my phone. Would that I could keep chickens in my tiny backyard patch. I have thought about it. The neighbours exercised a veto.

Apparently, according to the app, chickweed is good for more than chickens. You can stir-fry it or steam it like spinach. That is worth knowing in these troubled times. I am not sure whether it is reassuring or troubling to realise that in times of extremis, a weed might be in exactly the right position – that is, everywhere.

You can also eat mallow – that lobe-leaved plant, slightly resembling geraniums, that grows in every lawn, neglected laneway and bitumen crack. You can dry it and toast it or use it as tea, or in soup to give it body. So says the app.

The preppers – who earn their name for always being prepared for calamity, and who have a right to feel smug in these frightening times – like to pack sachets of dried food in their survival supplies. There are noodles and commando biscuits and nutritious rusks. There is a booming business, I am told, in joyless eating.

But I was squeezing food plants into every available corner before it became a lockdown response to crisis. So I have been pulling out, mulching over and swearing at chickweed and mallow for many years.

I cannot imagine an apocalypse without them. We may traverse denuded landscapes, grizzled and alone. JobKeeper may be denied us. But there will surely be chickweed and mallow.

Call it a cliché or call it an archetype. The rounds of the seasons give us one of the reliable metaphors of human storytelling. We know the deal: hope comes in spring, ripeness in summer, sadness in autumn and stoicism or death in winter.

Gardening keeps me sane, so winter will be tough, because there isn’t much to do in the garden. But watch me make busy!

In April, I planted garlic – now sprouting, but not due to form interesting bulbs until summer. The marigolds I sowed in March are flowering, and make orange fists of colour against the winter grey. Soon they will need dead-heading, and then there will be no colour in the garden. The daffodil bulbs went in at the same time as the garlic. Last weekend, I scuffed the dirt off one of them to make sure it was doing its thing.

Sure enough, under the soil there was the stiff white tumescence of first shoot, but it will be weeks before it pokes above the soil and develops into the sappy yellow herald of spring.

Every morning, after first coffee, I do what I jokingly call my tour of the grounds – a three-minute journey from rear fence to front strip. It begins with using an old soft-drink bottle to water the mushroom farm that I keep just inside the back door, next to the vacuum cleaner.

Then I rinse the sprouts on the kitchen sink before going out and checking that the possums haven’t eaten the peas growing on the sundeck.

If it isn’t raining I go down the spiral staircase to my brick-paved backyard and pick a few mandarins – citrus fruit are surely the biggest thrill of winter.

Then, assuming I am out of my pyjamas, I walk back through the house and out to the narrow metre-wide bed that divides my house from the street. I check the broad beans are still growing, the broccoli is upright and the rhubarb is resprouting after its sacrifice for last week’s crumble.

Everywhere I go I pull out chickweed and mallow. I drop them in the red-lidded bin. Such plenty, such waste.

Yates Garden Guide has a list of “essential” tasks for winter. There is pruning, of course, and raking and composting of leaves. I have done both those things, and in my tiny backyard it took all of five minutes. Then there is much talk of oiling the handles of spades and other tools. Nobody I know has ever done any such thing.

Christ is meant to have said, “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin.” The point being that we really shouldn’t worry, because God will provide. I have no lilies, and I am not a Christian. Instead, I am considering the worms.

My stepdaughter gave me a worm farm free. Her family dog had chewed its legs off, and also made mince of the plastic tap through which one is meant to drain worm wee. She thought this made it useless. I thought otherwise.

I took it gladly and have shoved it directly on the dirt beneath my citrus trees. That way, when it is hot in summer and I have forgotten to water, the worms can make their own way into the soil, and come back when my neglect is over. I imagine such periods of neglect as a kind of dark night of the soul for the worms. Has their god abandoned them?

I went to Bunnings and bought a thousand worms. (They don’t count them, but rather work on an equation based on how much each worm weighs, presumably safe in the knowledge that nobody is likely to check.) I tipped the plastic bag containing the worms onto a prepared bed of compost and shredded newspaper, and bent over to watch.

Worms move more slowly in the cold, which must be hard for them when they are worried. They writhed together in a slow-motion agony of anxiety at being exposed to the light, and as fast as they could – I imagined them cursing their own slowness – burrowed out of the light and into the compost.

You farm your worms by placing food – kitchen scraps or whatever – in the basket above the bedding for your worms. You will hardly ever see them at work because they shun the light. Worm farming requires faith in natural processes – believing that they are there, just because the food gradually disappears.

But if you want to brighten a winter day, crack an egg into your worm farm and cover it up for an hour or so. Then, when the worms least expect it (assuming a worm is capable of expectation) lift the lid. You will find a nest of writhing pink worm-flesh feasting on the richness of the yolk.

Then they disappear again, but you will know they are there. Even though they are sightless and have not much brain, they behave reliably. They can find what they need.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 20, 2020 as "Crisis stalks".

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Margaret Simons
is a Walkley Award-winning journalist and author. She reports on business for The Saturday Paper.

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