Gardening

While the coronavirus pandemic has altered the world as we know it, nature carries on regardless, and with spring comes fresh hope. By Margaret Simons.

Spring hopes eternal

Harvesting ripe carrots from a home garden.
Credit: Sergei Chaiko / Alamy

Spring is for plans and preparation, with no shadow yet to fall between the intention and the reality. This week I have harvested the Covid-19 garden that I planted before such things became fashionable. I have cut the cauliflower, consumed the cabbage and am trying to eat the rocket before it goes to seed.

Meanwhile, it is time to sow.

Sowing carrot seed, in particular, implies a commitment to micromanagement as well as an expectation that, for a couple of weeks at least, life will be gentle.

Planting any seed is an act of faith – a trust that the combination of soil, water and the little nugget of dried-up plant matter will result in new life. Some seeds – radish, beans, rocket – can be plonked into the ground and more or less neglected. They are generous and robust, requiring only one good watering to start the magic.

I wonder how many people would love to get their fingers into the soil but do not for fear of failing to meet some mystery standard of gardening virtue? To these people I say, buy a packet of radish seed and bung it in. You can’t go wrong. You won’t even get impatient. You will have radishes to eat in weeks.

Carrot seed cannot be relied upon in this way. It needs such careful treatment in the early weeks that I wonder how carrots ever grew wild, without human intervention.

The seed is light and fine. Necessarily, you sow too many because they spill from the packet like sand.

You can buy tapes on which the seeds have been glued at ideal intervals. There are even online guides to making your own seed tape. The ABC’s Gardening Australia describes it as “a fantastic activity for a rainy winter’s day”. It involves newspaper in strips, flour and water paste, tweezers and an empty life.

Is there a workshop, somewhere in the world of Yates and Mr Fothergill’s, where exploited workers – children? prisoners? trained monkeys? – are gluing carrot seed to tape? Is this an investigative journalism project in the making?

I am not a seed tape kind of person. Nor do I clip my edges. Nor have I ever achieved that mantra of gardening books “a fine tilth”. My edges are hard to find, let alone clip. I am not even sure I have edges. I am a scattering and stomping and thinning out kind of gardener. And this is not suited to the early life of carrots.

Once you have got the carrot seed into the soil it must be kept moist for about a fortnight. You can do this by placing damp cardboard over the soil until the first leaves appear, or you can trust yourself to remember to go out into the garden at least twice a day – more often if it is warm – and sprinkle the seedbed with water.

Lockdown makes this easier, because there is nothing else to do. So, too, mild weather. That is why, when I saw a week of rain predicted, I got out my carrot seed packet and scattered the contents over about a square metre of the tiny strip of soil that divides my inner urban house from the pavement.

The rain would make the job of watering easier, I thought. The weather would be gentle, and those tender carrots would benefit.

I didn’t reckon on some cold snaps soon after planting, and I am fairly sure the soil, which was warming nicely, became too chilled for carrots to germinate. The seeds may well have rotted.

Nevertheless now the rain has gone, three times a day I leave my desk, put on my mask (because I have to stand on the pavement to water my front strip), and sprinkle the earth with the watering can.

Carrots sprout boringly at first. They are hardly distinguishable from grass in the early days. Then they acquire two slender leaves before going all feathery topped. At that stage you can begin to neglect them. They have become bullies. The roots are spearing downwards, beyond the reach of drought.

They swell and push. They squeeze other things out, hauling up deep-down nutrients and keeping it all for themselves and their swelling, phallic roots. There is nothing gentle about a carrot once it has a feathery top.

But you can leave it in the soil, through heat and into the following winter. It has become a reliable food source and the taste, plucked straight from the soil, makes you wonder why you ever bothered with the supermarket.

Spring is a good time for sowing and reflecting on the early days of plants. I started my tomatoes many weeks ago on the windowsill, and planted them out on what, in happier times, would have been grand final day in Melbourne.

Thanks to some cold weather, they have been sulking ever since.

But other things are going well. Have you ever watched an onion seed sprout? They push through the soil folded up. Once the shoot is in the clear, they unfold to make a single spike of twice the length.

Or sweetcorn, which I have started inside on the windowsill. When the shoots first appear above the soil they look like tiny sticks of furled green paper. All the leaves are wrapped tight in a grass-like shard. It doesn’t take long for the unfurling to begin. The plant spirals out into the world.

Before you know it you have corn plants you can’t see over, and big heavy cobs of the sweet stuff to pluck and steam. But that lies ahead, if I am lucky.

Lettuce, though, is happening now. I have planted many kinds – buttercrunch, sucrine, cos, oak leaf, radicchio and iceberg. They sound like liquors, or sweets, or the capitals of foreign nations.

The worms in the worm farm are growing fat and breeding in the expectation of summer. The weeds are growing as fast as the plants. The world has changed since last spring but nobody has told the seasons. They know the drill: fullness, waning, death and new hope.

Meanwhile the germination period for carrots is the same as the incubation period for the coronavirus, which means I won’t really understand the implications of what I am doing, with my thrice-daily watering, for a fortnight.

I watch the infection numbers. I self-isolate. I mask up and hope for the best, and I water the earth that may be dead but may yet yield carrots.

I push into the future half blind.

That is always the way, of course. But spring brings it home.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 17, 2020 as "Dangling a carrot".

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