Green shoots

Hephzibah Anderson heads for the allotment

Root and Branch

Rarely have the season’s first asparagus spears been so keenly awaited by gardeners and gastronomes alike. Their flavour, grassy with a mild earthiness, is so prized that the best recipes involve little more than salted water. But it’s not just our taste buds that stir at the sight. To any heart ravenous for signs of hope, its firm, upward thrusting form — no need to wonder about the roots of claimed aphrodisiacal qualities – is irresistible, suggestive of rows of flagpoles ready for the victorious banners: we did it, we made it through the hungry gap.

That stomach-rumbling chasm is something gardeners, especially those of us with allotment plots, have always been keenly aware of. Beginning as the winter’s supply of root vegetables dwindles and brassicas go to seed, it runs, like some primordial gag, through the natural world’s most fecund-seeming season until the start of asparagus season, traditionally St Georges’ Day.

Once you’ve tasted homegrown produce – tugged, plucked and twisted directly from the soil – nothing at the farmers’ market can compete, never mind airfreighted, off-season substitutes. These lean months saw us make do with tattered chard and snail-silvered tufts of lamb’s lettuce, putting itchy green fingers to work nestling seed potatoes in egg boxes and shuffling seed packets, of which we’ve inevitably ordered too many.

This year, with supermarkets stripped of fresh produce, our twitchy agitation was suddenly shared by the rest of the nation. Everyone, it seemed, was turning to gardening. Bewildered urbanites, untethered from routine, found themselves eying neglected balconies. The decking that stretches beyond so many conservatories seemed newly decadent. Even my daughter’s violin teacher was fluttering soil-rimmed nails by the time the weekly lesson migrated onto Zoom. No wonder seed companies were left struggling to keep up with demand.

It wasn’t just the time we all were rumoured to have; nor was it some latter-day, more selfish incarnation of digging for victory — a mad self-sufficiency dash that saw poultry breeders running out of chicks. Instead, it seemed to be about satisfying a primal urge to exert control over some small space — a window box, even — while so many certainties were being churned up. Gardening became the answer to two pressing needs: feeding ourselves and calming our troubled minds.

Down on our allotment, though, the ceaseless deluges at the start of the year had left our clay soil, heavy at the best of times, in comatose clods. We were there to dig potato trenches and string up cane teepees for runner beans and sweet peas. All the same, we didn’t leave empty-handed. Was this a desire to bring something closer as social distancing kept us apart from loved ones? Perhaps, though I’ve always been a glutton for cut flowers. To one who’s been known to behead potted hyacinths, swoony with their own heavy scent, the idea of a cutting garden is flummoxing: isn’t every garden a place to snip with abandon? And so we returned with armfuls of rocket that had bolted into bloom, its delicate, papyrus-coloured petals veined with sepia, and bobbing among them the creamy, long-stemmed pompoms of an overwintered scabious.

Even the local fauna seemed to have been infected by human anxiety: the white violets that ordinarily carpet the tree my daughter swings from were already long gone, their sweet flowers nibbled to nubs by rabbits or mice. It was a reminder that in the garden, as elsewhere, mastery is illusory.

The ritual of seed-sowing may be innately hopeful, the sight of those first pinpricks of green, glimpsed through the propagator’s sweaty lid, renewal incarnate. But once those seedlings have been pricked out and hardened off, once they’ve been bedded down and fed and watered, along will come the slugs, the caterpillars, the pigeons.

Gardening has plenty of lessons to impart about co-existence. It teaches patience, too: asparagus spears may grow up to 10 centimetres a day now that they’ve surfaced from their slumber, but a crown should be left up to four years after planting before harvesting. Above all, gardening makes a mockery of our plans: weather and, yes, disease are but two variables beyond our control, whose impact we can only ever hope to manage.

With the hungry gap at last behind us, the coming months’ bounty doesn’t seem quite so far off. Hopefully, baby broad beans will be the next to arrive, little morsels packed like something precious in their pillowy pods. The first saladings should then brighten plates laden with buttered new spuds, and after that, with nurture and a bit of luck, peas too sweet to do anything with but munch raw, picture-book radishes, raspberries so ripe they’re falling off the cane, prickly gooseberries, sun-warmed tomatoes and speckled courgettes. Actually, there may be one certainty to be had in the garden: you will probably always have more courgettes than you know what to
do with.

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