In praise of imperfection

Persuade thyself that imperfection and inconvenience are the natural lot of mortals, and there will be no room for discontent, neither for despair.‘  Ieyasu Tokugawa

I’ve seen several comments and articles recently about how the pressures of social media drive people to portray their lives as being far better than they really are, and that garden writing is no exception. Everything seems to look constantly rosy in other peoples’ patches and this can lead to feelings of inadequacy for lesser mortals who know their own garden would – given an honest assessment – be found wanting. Now, don’t get me wrong: I like taking photos of lovely things and sharing them as much as the next person. Take this rather beautiful sunflower, for instance. that has come into bloom this week.

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It would be tempting to wax lyrical about the flaming starburst of colour it has brought to the vegetable patch but the truth of the matter is, of the thirty seeds I planted in spring, this is one of only two – yes, two! –  plants that survived (the others having failed to germinate or been washed out of the ground in storms or munched off by the slimy ones). A beautiful flower? Certainly . . . but hardly a roaring success, is it?

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So, I’d like to put my hand up once and for all and admit that (a) our garden is a long, long way off being perfect and (b) I don’t care. I’m happy to share the disasters as well as delights, partly because I’m not by nature a dishonest or boastful person; I don’t feel a smug sense of superiority if I grow something ‘better’ than someone else but neither do I feel a crushing disappointment if they ‘outdo’ me. Mostly, though, it’s because gardening is a reflection of real life: there will always be ups and downs, successes and failures, feasts and famines. You can’t airbrush reality so why pretend in the garden? Here, then, is my unapologetic, warts ‘n’ all garden update. Of course, there are photos of good things but a few nasties, too.

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Having been away for ten days to celebrate Sam and Adrienne’s gorgeous wedding, we came home to what can only be described as a jungle. Unlike so many other parts of Europe, Asturias hasn’t had searing temperatures for several weeks and neither have we been short of water. Far from it, in fact; at times it has felt like the rain would never stop, and much in the garden has been crying out for sunshine. The two views above are typical of our year; the one below is a sunlit treat!

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The flip side, of course, is that it has stayed very lush and very green right to the mountain tops,  and stuff has grown like crazy, grass and weeds included – it took another ten days to get them back under control! Thankfully, several food crops emerged from under the weedy mess, including several patches of lettuce which just keep going and going.

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I went into into slight panic mode when we seemed to be down to a single courgette plant, and sowed some more; we now have seven (two of which are self-set) and more courgettes than we know what to do with.

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Ditto the cukes. What a nightmare time I had in spring getting these little blighters to grow; now, the smooth-as-silk ‘Diva’ and  knobbly ‘Marketmore 76’ are tumbling from their supports and doubling in size daily. I munch them as a piece of fruit as I work or wander round the garden but I’m losing the battle: cucumber and yogurt soup is definitely on the menu in the next few days.

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What can I say about the brassicas except that if I were the crying type, I’d be howling my head off in despair. The uphill struggle theses poor plants have had this year has been immense: slow germination or no germination (so re-sowing, in some cases several times); washed out of the ground in rainstorms; completely trashed by our own version of the Great Heathen Army, not Danes but slugs and snails in their thousands; picked on by whitefly, scratched up by blackbirds and  – the final insult to those brave survivors – torn to lace by caterpillars.

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Yes, it is very, very frustrating but I absolutely refuse to give up – I’m simply not prepared to see good food crops disappear literally before our eyes. I can think of better ways to spend my time than picking the caterpillars off each and every leaf several times a day and it beats me how they manage to reappear so darned quickly . . . but very slowly, I am clawing some ground back. Their numbers are dwindling and there is enough new growth on the plants to suggest we just might get some calabrese and kale after all. It’s interesting that the frilly purple kale which took the biggest slug and snail hit in spring (one plant left from six) is holding out better than the rest against caterpillars. There must be a lesson there somewhere. Maybe once Operation Caterpillar Clearout is over, I can work out what it is (or maybe just consider buying some anti-butterfly netting).

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The second veg garden perched above the orchard could easily be called the Three Sisters patch this year, being mainly planted with sweetcorn, squash and beans; whatever else happens here, we can be pretty certain that these three lovelies won’t let us down.

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Well, I say that,  but . . . the squash might be doing their thing, climbing fences, trailing into the lane and generally taking over the garden but of the six or seven new cultivars I planted this year, only ‘Olive’ has so far bothered to set any fruit. The others are simply faffing about. Take the self-set monster (front right) which has emerged from the compost heap and has probably grown from a ‘Guatemalan Blue’ seed from last year’s crop; it’s doing a splendid job in grabbing anyone who walks round the corner and is off at speed down towards the village but it’s yet to have a single flower. Aaaargh! At least our very favourite ‘Crown Prince’ is proving to be as reliable as ever so we won’t be totally squashless; unless those others get themselves sorted, I have a feeling it may well be ‘Crown Prince’ and only ‘Crown Prince’ next year.

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The French beans, I admit, are good. Very good, in fact. The ever-reliable ‘Tendergreen’ is cropping like mad and I have to say that ‘Purple Podded’ is giving it a close run for its money. We are picking and eating piles of both every day.

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I did have a bit of a moment when the climbing ‘Goldfield’ started to produce beans, thinking I’d had a rush of blood to the head and bought a runner by mistake. Not so, apparently. This is a flat-podded variety and where it’s not quite as prolific as its neighbours, the beans are crisp, tender and have a good flavour (ignore the holes in the leaves, it’s the story of our gardening year so far).

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Now for the polytunnel and where do I start but with a tale of woe – the complete and utter collapse of our magnificent tomato plants. It wasn’t unexpected; regular readers will know we have struggled with blight for three seasons now and this was our last-ditch attempt to grow a decent crop. Not a chance!

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Like the brassicas, it’s frustrating but not the end of the world. Flavoursome, sun-drenched tomatoes in every colour, shape and size are cheap and plentiful here so it’s easy enough to buy them and I can’t be bothered to feel upset or disappointed. The main annoyance was the fact that they had set such big tresses of fruit and it would have been lovely to see them ripen, especially those huge ‘Marmande’ beauties. No worries, we ate them green anyway; forget the ubiquitous chutney, green tomatoes sliced and lightly fried in olive oil with warming spices and finished with a dash of balsamic vinegar make a truly delightful dish.

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In no time at all, I had those miserable plants out and on a bonfire, using the freed-up space to pop in some extra pepper and chilli plants. They at least are doing the business and we’re happy to freeze any glut that  might (hopefully) present itself.

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On the subject of gluts, this time last year we were starting to enjoy a mammoth harvest of peaches: eaten fresh from the tree, made into marmalade and relish, frozen in massive quantities for stewing . . . we were in peach heaven. This year could not be more different. The early spring storms blasted the delicate pink blossom down the valley at 100kmh and consequently we have just a handful of fruit on a handful of trees. 😦 On the bright side, a break from bearing fruit does seem to be doing the trees good, they are looking much healthier this year and we won’t be short of fruit as the pears, figs and kiwi (inevitably!) are loaded. There are also a couple of little extra treats to look forward to.

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Things don’t look too bad in the nuttery, either. We’ve missed the boat where pickled walnuts are concerned but there’s a promise of a good crop of mature nuts to harvest and store once again (please note the blue sky).

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The hazels that Roger laid in early spring have made a wonderfully thick, verdant hedge along the lane and are shamelessly flaunting their frilly fruits. They look a little like Kentish cobs to me and will definitely be a treat if the wildlife doesn’t get there first.

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Things on the flower front have been tricky this year, too, and it’s hard to say how much the weather is to blame or if it’s just life happening. My attempt to brighten up the courtyard with lots of pots, troughs and hanging baskets has been met with mixed results; the petunias, pelargoniums, lobelia and friends have richoted between gaudy explosions of joyful colour and sad, soggy, slimy messes. It’s worked at times but in a half-hearted sort of way.

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The hardy annuals, too, have been a mixed bag of fortune. We have a smattering of sweet peas but they are truly the most pathetic I’ve grown for years; however, in fairness to them, they did at least germinate which is more than can be said for several packets of other things that chose not to bother. Calendula, borage, field poppies, Californian poppies and nasturtiums have all done their usual thing (thank goodness!) but for the others, it’s been a struggle. After a slow start, the pansies are making little pops of colour with their cheerful faces but something (what???) is nibbling the petals into rags. Perhaps nigella ‘Persian jewels’ wins the prize for enthusiasm and endurance this year.

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One thing we’ve found here is that generally speaking, anything grown from a bulb, corm, tuber or rhizome thrives. Certainly, the spring bulbs were a real show so on the strength of that I planted some new summer ones to add colour to the borders and veg patch alike. Mmm. The calochortus disappeared without trace. Of the fifteen gladiolus nanus ‘Charming Beauty’, only four grew and of those, only one has flowered. It is a pretty, dainty little butterfly of a thing but oh, so lonely!

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Crocosmia grows literally like a weed in the local verges and ditches so I’m not surprised that they have at least grown if not yet flowered like their wild cousins. Star award is definitely saved for the liatris spicata, though, whose gorgeous bottlebrush blooms are lighting up the lane and proving a magnet for bees and butterflies alike.

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Most of the dahlias I raised from seed last year made it through winter (no frosts to worry about) but several then rotted in the spring mudfest. A handful in the veg patch have also been hammered by the slimeballs; they’ve fought back but not found the strength to bloom yet. On the upside, the four I moved into the new border by the horreo are flowering and through luck rather than judgement, have all turned out to be different colours.

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So, there we have it. Our patch of earth is most definitely not a glitzy, manicured, flawless celeb of a garden. It wouldn’t win any prizes for anything. There is colour but not as much as I would like; there are vegetables, but we’re missing several bits and pieces; there’s wildlife, not all of it helpful. The bottom line, however, is that I wouldn’t change it for the world because it is how a garden should be; it’s not pretending to be anything other than how it is and I think that’s important. Yes, we are at the mercy of the vagaries of nature and the weather but wouldn’t it be so boring if it were all very predictable? To put it in context, we’ve had a pretty rubbish growing season but we still have more food than we know what to do with. It’s true that one of those carrots was forked, the pepper had fallen off the plant way before it had reached its optimum size and the pointed cabbage was blessed with the ‘offerings’ of caterpillars and slugs but everything in that trug was fresh and crisp and tender and flavoursome and wholesome in a way money can’t buy. Imperfect vegetables. Perfect! 🙂

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PS Don’t dwell on that kohl rabi – one of three plants left from a dozen, its foliage has been stripped and tattered and now something is nibbling its bottom. Rude!

 

 

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6 thoughts on “In praise of imperfection

  1. I don’t get the competitive gardening either, especially the vegetables for show growing. If there’s one thing that’s not competitive surely it’s gardening! Sounds like we should combine our two gardens. Everything that’s doing superbly in yours (nuts, beans, corn, peppers) isn’t doing much in ours (still waiting for those 12-year-old cobnuts to fruit), but we have brassicas galore, the squashes are setting tons of fruit too and we have potatoes and tomatoes. We had a garlic fail this year, but there’s not much to be done about it. It’s all about growing what we can. I just love walking through the garden at this time of year, there’s so much to delight. I’m throwing wild flower seeds everywhere at the moment. Our garden is rejecting all the fancy flowers (agapanthus no more) apart from roses – it wants herbs and wild flowers. Fine by me!

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    • A plea for non-competitive, gentle, pragmatic gardening – wonderful! It’s always a case of you win some, you lose some, isn’t it? I can’t be doing with trying to grow anything the garden rejects, either – what’s the point? Anyway, you can’t beat herbs and wildflowers in my book, they are so reliable and great for the wildlife. Happy wandering (and grazing and picking and eating!) 🙂

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  2. That’s strange about the purple kale – here it was the one hit worst by the diamondback.

    It might well be that you win orange-and-black fritillaries (Heliconii) and lose pansies as their larvae often feed on Viola plants…

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  3. I always feel like I have had a walk around a real garden when I read your posts. That is what sustains us, isn’t it? I think gardening is such a metaphor for so many life lessons about ups and downs and taking the rough with the smooth. A nibbled brassica is still a thing of beauty though!

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    • Thank you for your comment, Ali! Yes, gardening is definitely a metaphor for life and a good way of learning to deal with so many things, too. I’m trying very hard to see the beauty in caterpillars at the moment!

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