Don't Overlook the Parsnips

The pleasure of tending garden

It’s not really the country, just a city person’s idea of it. You can still buy a latte or a fancy lamp. But it’s far enough that I’ve come to do different things, to spend a lot of time driving between towns, to swim in rivers, to talk at length about the weather, and to garden. The house we moved to had two large vegetable beds out back, both sectioned off from the lawn with dried-out planks and full of knee-high weeds. I could have left them - I later learnt that the landlord was intending to tidy them away and sow the space with grass. But they came to me as a challenge. Here was my chance to have a go at growing my own food. And, frankly, now that I was living far from friends, what else would I do.

My family is full of gardeners. Visiting my grandfather often meant finding him outside, pushing a hoe between the brassicas. Once he offered me heads of broccoli, so many that I told him he better save some for himself.

‘Oh I don’t like it all that much,’ he said.
‘Why do you grow it then?’
‘Just for something to grow really.’

He was a talented carpenter, capable of making nearly anything out of wood. I envied that talent. It was a type of magic, taking a few rough pieces of wood into his dusty workshop and coming out with a piece of furniture, the timber glowing with varnish. I wondered why he would muck around in the garden so often when he could be doing that. The things he’d make would last for years, decades. A stalk of broccoli wouldn’t last past dinner.

I dug and I dug, turning over dense soil with my spade, breaking it down to a tithe and pulling out those weeds. It was long, tedious work. I wore a hole in a pair of gumboots, but I began to see that weed clogged space become dark dirt. I bought bags of compost, a by-product of the local mushroom farm, and picked up a free sack of horseshit and shovelled all that in, until it was rich and loamy. Poking a fork into the ground no longer meant lifting brick-like clods. My ground looked like somewhere you might grow something.

The beds were soon planted out with summer vegetables: tomatoes, lettuces, courgettes, spuds, and beans. After work and my lengthy commute, I hurried out to do what I could while there was still daylight. And as the weather warmed, the garden flourished. We could skip the supermarket’s produce section. Gardening became the chief topic of my day dreams, as I wondered what I could do next. And when summer came to an end and the garden was picked over, the potatoes dug, the lettuces gone flabby, I pulled them out and added them to the compost patch. I planted cold weather crops: beetroot, parsnips, cabbages, in preparation for the next season.

I had begun to understand that hold gardening had had for my grandfather and for so many others. Actually, that’s not true. Better to say I began to feel that hold, because I still don’t entirely understand it. The pat explanation would be that it’s primal, inherited from our distant ancestors, but that’s not something I can say with a straight face – what does some caveman have to do with how I feel about silver beet? One I thing I do know is that gardening gives me an easy reason to spend time outside, even when the weather is fine or grey, or when there’s no time for roving further. It’s easy to underestimate this, but so often the difference between a good day and a dull, unsatisfying one is as simple as time spent outside. We’re like a plants in that regard, needing the light.

On my shelves are books by Annie Dillard, Edward Abbey, Barry Lopez, and Robert MacFarlane. Between them they consider mountains, creeks, deserts, tundra and the mountains. The humble vege patch doesn’t get much of a look in. The focus of this and most other nature writing I’ve encountered tends to be the wild, even when the subject is the way people interact with or perceive nature. When the gaze does turn to the garden, it still manages to screen out the mess of food production, keeping the compost heap hidden away behind the washhouse. The other day, I spotted this, on Twitter, by poet Helen Lehndorf: “In an anthology of poems about plants, there are 60 poems about roses, but just one about onions. Priorities, people! You can't fry a rose!”

I’m guilty of those prejudices and missed priorities myself. When we began this website, in addition to drinking beer and discussing how cool it would eventually be, we set out some informal rules about what we would and wouldn’t cover. High tech activities like base jumping were out - we wanted this to be about things most people could do – and so too was gardening, a casualty again of that view of the outdoors as a place not directly shaped by people. And yet, while I live in sight of mountains, eyeing them each day and planning trips to them when I can, the garden is the corner of the outdoors where I spend the most time. It’s there that I look closely at the weather, seriously consider the seasons and the birds that scratch for my seed, and even the dirt itself. It has taught me as much about the outdoors as the bush.

Parsnips are notoriously tricky to germinate, and to help them along I used an old trick – pouring boiling water along the row. The idea is that it will break the seed coat and so speed the process a little. Even so, I watched the row for days, seeing nothing but weeds. I went about my other chores, having written them off, but still reluctant to dig them out. I waited, and then, just when I’d forgotten, I saw them. There, poking out of the weeds, were the arrow head leaves of my parsnips. Instantly I felt the urge to tell someone, and because it’s the 21st century, for a second I thought that this was something I should tweet or post to Facebook. Thankfully, this feeling passed.

But still I felt that satisfaction and pride, and a month or so later, when my father, someone who knows more about gardening than I ever will, came to visit, I immediately showed him my garden.

‘You’ve got those parsnips in too late,’ he said, before we even got to the bed. ‘They’ll go to seed.’

He was right too. As keen as I am, and as much as I’ve dug and grown so far, it’s still just a beginning.