I have a perennial burning urge to grow beans and lettuces, tomatoes and zucchini. I missed the season last year, moving house and garden, but I’m back on track. Although I garden on a modest scale, inadvertently I’ve embarked on a bid to grow the world’s most expensive vegetables.
A preference for growing vegetables over flowers is proof of my prosaic side, but also illustrates a romantic approach to harvesting and cooking produce straight from the soil. Beans plucked half an hour earlier than they appear on one’s plate taste superior to any you can buy. New potatoes harvested emerge from the dark earth like gold nuggets, reminiscent of a cherished childhood with my father. Boiled with fresh mint in water and glistening with butter and salt on the plate, they are a meal fit for the gods.
But from lack of energy and muscle power, my economics are off the scale. After a tree trimmer charged hundreds to remove six leylandii trees from my front garden, I added several new plants from a nursery with the help of a jobbing gardener: fuchsia, hypericum, mallow, syringa, lilac, photinia and one doomed hosta.
As in every garden I’ve owned, we planted a bed of herbs destined to be strewn liberally in cooking: rosemary, oregano, thyme, mint, tarragon and a tiny bay tree.
Unable to bend or dig due to a lifelong back problem, my gardening is confined to what I can accomplish sitting down. On a garden chair beside a plastic tub full of compost, I fill pots with a trowel and plant seedlings from the garden center: pansies, aubretia, petunias and primulas, star creeper and viola columbine arranged in the front to welcome visitors. I move the pots from back garden to front using a wheelbarrow. It’s surprising what one feeble but determined old doll can accomplish with a wheelbarrow and the bit between her teeth.
Zinnias planted from seed in early April by my grandson Jake visiting from Virginia, are now pricked out in a pot and flourishing, three inches high. Only four seeds of a full packet germinated on the study windowsill. A couple of geraniums survived the winter indoors and are now flowering where they belong in summer. After growing them in my sunny garden in south west France in the nineties, I know that geraniums do well on a full soaking followed by drying out, and soaking again. In my French garden snails were eagerly collected by neighbors who asked permission, if we didn’t want them, to collect ours to cook in soup. They were welcome. They were so plentiful, I sank yogurt pots of beer between the bean sticks in France and the snails died happy.
Here in Ireland snails demonstrate their voracious appetite for hostas (their leaves reduced at first to lace, then devoured down to the stalks). I grew magnificent hostas effortlessly in Virginia but never saw a slug or snail in that hot climate. I read that snails, marked experimentally with a blob of nail varnish on their shells and moved fifty yards away, would be back for breakfast by morning.I remove snails daily from the pots of petunias. They don’t seem partial to pansies. It would not be neighborly to throw them over the garden wall so I’m putting them in the trash and hope they don’t cling for dear life when upended by the dustmen. I emailed my expert gardener son in Kansas, who advised me to abandon planting hostas in Ireland as a lost cause and to drink the beer myself. Reluctantly I’ve bought slug pellets for their breakfast but Irish snails are canny, preferring plants to pellets, eating around bait like kids with a plate of Brussels sprouts. I haven’t any pets to harm.
A couple of months ago I planted six chitting potatoes from my larder at two levels in a plastic laundry tub with a hole drilled in the bottom for drainage. Now they look like a shrub. A bulb of garlic divided into cloves and planted in a pot in my kitchen now has emerging shoots 4 inches tall.
Before I could plant the dwarf and broad beans (one row of each) the gardener built a raised bed accessible to an arthritic gardener. There are twice as many seeds at 3 Euros a packet than I have space for. On top of the soil dug out from elsewhere in my garden, I sewed a row each of dwarf and broad beans, little gem lettuces and long lasting spinach. The lettuces are emerging, but the beans are still thinking about it.
Two tomato plants will share the compost bin and the zucchini plant resides in another plastic tub. The produce from one of these plants is more than sufficient for one woman, but I have a recipe for pickle. Too many tomatoes are not good for arthritis.
I’m not good at math but estimate that after 150 Euros a day for the gardener ($190), the raised bed, bought planters, trowel, compost and seeds, a hose and a hoe, a borrowed wheelbarrow and spade, umpteen woman-hours thrown in for love, and provided the birds and snails don’t eat the emerging plants… if I’m lucky my home grown vegetables may cost at least thirty Euros a pound, but they will surely taste delicious. In terms of quality of life, you can’t put a price on that.