The gardening media has no place for the compromised gardener, who finds beauty in ugliness, bounty in neglect and hope in the unruly silverbeet. By Margaret Simons.
Feeding on imperfection
There is a class of vegetables – mainly leafy greens – that are truly blessed. They are grouped together under the rubric of “cut-and-come-again”, meaning you can reap a harvest, leave the roots in the ground and confidently return at a later date to collect the regrowth. The cut-and-come-agains are therefore the friends of the hard-pressed gardener. I mean myself.
In that last sentence, I at first used the phrase “lazy gardener” and then deleted it, because I am not lazy. Rather, I am compromised.
I navigate my various roles and identities – parent, grandmother, journalist, friend and gardener – with a constant awareness of shortcomings and failures. As T. S. Eliot put it, “between the idea and the reality ... falls the shadow”. He wasn’t talking about gardening, of course. The relevant poem is The Hollow Men, and the titular characters are trapped in a limbo between life and death, existence and nothingness, light and darkness. The poem is set partly in desert and partly in a city in which people have lost their way – crowds of clerks navigate their daily commute in a stupor. It is living death.
That’s not me and not my garden. But on the other hand, I am trapped in imperfection.
My relationship with gardening books, magazines and television programs – even the delightful Gardening Australia on the ABC – is ambivalent, because I never achieve anything close to the manicured glory and bountiful harvests of the experts. Gardening media is always aspirational – the soft porn of the backyard. It inspires, stimulates and shames us.
In gardening media, there is no failure. Seeds sprout. People remember to water and fertilise. There is no death or even ugly old age. Deadheading is performed mostly off camera and on time. Oxalis never gets a decent hold. Pruning is accomplished. Weeding is always manageable. Compost does not host rats, nor the remnants of lost vegetable peelers and pot scourers.
I have only a few square metres under my care, and I care deeply about my garden, but it is a mess. I have been travelling overseas through the summer – the season in which the garden most needs attention. The mint has burned to a crisp.
The lettuce seedlings survived and are now reviving with daily watering, but the crisp green parts have brown necklaces of withered leaves. The bean crop, at least, is an unqualified success. I arrived home just in time to harvest before the tender shoots turned into bulbous giants. Every day there are more to collect. My fridge vegetable drawer is overflowing with beans. I am giving beans away to a family that could be more grateful.
But the greatest and most reliable pleasures are the cut-and-come-again survivors. Even in the worst of times, they allow me to maintain my self-image as someone who grows food. Let me name them.
I have a box on the verandah filled with spring onions that are now three seasons old. I cut them just above the soil line, and the roots send out a new onion within a few weeks. Bunches of spring onions cost at least $2.80 in the supermarket. I never have to buy them.
Next to the spring onions is my box of lettuce, which as previously mentioned is currently not fit to appear in any gardening porn. Yet I can step outside my back door and pick off leaves of cos, buttercrunch, radicchio and Batavia to go in my lunchtime sandwich, or in a salad. Eventually they grow tall and bitter, set seed and die, but with regular picking I can keep them going for weeks. I enjoy this cheating of death. I try to tolerate more bitterness so I can keep the race going.
Then there are the herbs. The chives love nothing better than to be cut. The thyme grows increasingly woody, but also increasingly reliable. The oregano is almost embarrassing in its vigour, threatening to take over the garden. The tarragon disappears every winter but so far has always come back in spring.
Parsley is more challenging. On the upside, it is cut-and-come-again for two seasons. Then it goes to seed and dies, no matter what you do. I used to try to beat this pattern of death by cutting off the flower heads as soon as they appeared. I never succeeded in altering its life span. Parsley lives for two years, and that is that. One must simply accept the way of parsley.
But, to compensate, it self-seeds readily. Since I learnt to leave the seed heads alone, I have had parsley springing up like a weed in all sorts of inconvenient places. There are small parsley plants between the brick pavers, underneath the camellia and messing up the pansies. The parsley contributes to the mess but, on the other hand – tabouli.
Coriander might look like continental parsley but it is the prima donna of the herb world and the least forgiving of vegetables. It is the tease of the garden, calculated to make you fail. Cut it once and that’s that. Plant it in too shallow a pot and it dies. The gardening books advise planting coriander seedlings in succession, so you have a continuous supply. In 40 years of trying, I have never been able to make this work.
Sometimes I have had a nice row of different-sized plants, but after just one hot day, or indeed any kind of stress or disturbance, the whole lot has bolted to seed. One day I have coriander. The next I don’t. Foolishly, I planted coriander seedlings in a deep pot before my most recent bout of travel. I returned to find an empty pot. Will I never learn?
Alongside this inevitable failure there are undeserved successes. The capsicum plant in the corner of my verandah is not strictly cut-and-come-again. It is meant to be an annual, dying each year after harvest. Yet for reasons I can’t explain, and that have nothing to do with my care or skill, it has survived and fruited two seasons running. The capsicums are small and creased, like squashed baby faces. They taste intense.
But the hardiest survivor, the most potent harbinger of both shadow and hope, is my unglamorous silverbeet. The gardening books will tell you that silverbeet is an annual and must be planted afresh each season. I have found, though, that if you cut it back, it will rally and regrow each season. On top of that, it can survive in much less than the eight hours of direct sunlight that most gardening books will tell you is the essential minimum for vegetables. In my little light-challenged backyard the silverbeet responds by growing bigger, lusher leaves.
There is a price to pay for extending its life. You must tolerate ugliness. In its first year silverbeet can be as decorative as flowers, particularly if you get the rainbow chard kind with its pretty multicoloured stalks. In the second and third and fourth years, the stalks get fat and white and woody, sprawling horizontally and sprouting smaller leaves along their length. My five-year-old silverbeet plants are magnificently revolting – veterans of my slapdash methods.
Ants and beetles live in its innards. Parts of the stalks have gone brown and mushy. The rest are bleached like an old person’s legs that have been out of the sun for too long. The silverbeet looks like those scary trees in Game of Thrones – the ones with bleeding eyes and creviced faces. But it still puts out plentiful leaves and I make spanakopita and spaghetti sauces that look pretty enough on the dinner table.
Come the apocalypse, I will have silverbeet. When all else fails – when I fail – I will have silverbeet. It is not a boast. It is simply a fact.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 11, 2023 as "Beyond the prickly pear".
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