Monday, 5 November 2012

How do the Irish grow organic breeze blocks?

Being a stubborn fool, it took me over a decade to accept that the seasons in the West of Ireland are a month ahead of those in my native London. Every February I’d mock the locals for giving out about how cold it was for Spring. I’d recoil in horror when my farmer landlord in North Mayo said each August 1st:

“Well, that’s it now, Charlie. Summer’s over.”
‘No it’s not!’
I’d say to myself, because just as February is Winter in England, August is pure Summer.


So now I know. It takes a while, but I get there in the end. In Connacht, November is Winter and Summer starts in May. It still sounds a bit whackadoodle, but that’s my fault, not yours.

This Summer was one of my happiest and most memorable, because for the first time in my life I’ve had a patch of land to work on. It is now almost a garden, but when we first moved here there was a jungle to clear.

People say I’ve got green fingers, but I don’t see it like that. It’s not me that’s growing the plant. The plant is designed to grow, reproduce and thrive. All anyone can do is provide what it wants, which in the case of just about all plants is varying amounts of light, water and food.

To use the modern psychobabble terminology, a gardener is just an 'enabler'. The plant is primed to survive, and we can really overcomplicate things and spend fortunes underestimating the incredible tenacity of nature.

For example, in my last home I grew wildflowers and sunflowers in containers on the patio. There’d be potting compost, slug pellets, slow-release food pyramids and regular watering. Sure enough, the place was a riot of colour for months, and the sunflowers grew up their carefully-placed bamboo canes, held by twine ties.

They were stunning, yet better still was the sunflower that appeared out of the crack in the patio stones. A seed from the year before must have fallen in there, survived 9 months of neglect and then exploded into life.

Unfed, unwatered and unnoticed it shot up, growing as high and flowering as long as its cosseted pot-dwelling neighbours.

That self-seeder brought me joy, because it confirmed what I’d always felt: that plants have an incredibly strong desire to fulfil their growing destiny, and sometimes the less we do the better.

‘The Lazy Gardener’ wouldn’t make much of a TV show, but there’s something to be said for it.

A few months ago I spotted a little green leaf sticking out of my compost patch. Even though I’ve never felt the desire to break my back growing something that I can by dirt cheap around the corner, I’ve seen enough of my friends' beautifully constructed ridges to recognise a little potato plant.
A month later the entire patch is covered in lush green leaves and I’m incredibly excited. Not only do I have my first potato patch, in itself a pathway to as-yet unexplored realms of Irish society, but I haven’t done a stroke of work.

All I have done is eat a potato, and thrown the peel in the compost. In return, nature has seen fit to give me a whacking great potato patch. No digging, no watering, no effort on my part at all.

Then there’s warm drizzle swamping the air, blight is being mentioned on the weather forecast and I’m wondering if it’s time to start interfering with the process by spraying the patch.

No, I won’t. I’ll just keep my eyes peeled. I’ve read Walter Macken. I know how quickly the blight can wreak havoc.

Weeks pass. I remain vigilant until there, yes, dammit, the plants have all collapsed and gone mushy brown. With blighted potato plants I've never felt more Irish. I’m gutted, just ready to burn it all when my garden fork comes out of the patch with a huge beautiful healthy spud stuck on its tine.

Spuds! There are spuds!

Digging and scrambling I harvest 30 or 40 wondrous white flawless spuds, which we eat boiled, mashed, roasted and as chips and then give away to friends.

They were bloody lovely. Nobody had green fingers. It was all nature’s work.

Mind you, there is one gardening talent I’d like to have. In a way it’s truly green-fingered, because it’s something that you Irish seem to do incredibly well.

At the back of many Irish gardens there lurks an extraordinary and diverse artificial crop. Somehow you canny Celts have learned how to grow long metal chains from a single link. After planting a baked bean, you have the skill to grow a can in the ground. I’ve found plastic bottles that someone must have reared from a drop of spilled bleach, and deep-buried breeze blocks galore, each propagated from a single meagre grain of concrete.

That’s the kind of growing talent I’d like to have! Mind you, while nature’s doing all the work, I should be happy with what the land delivers unto me.

I love living this mixture of unreconstructed Old Bloke, digging holes, raking muck and strimming, alongside New Man who cooks wicked hot-pots, hoovers and does laundry. All very civilised donchaknow, but I‘m still well capable of acting like a foolhardy idiot.

Having blathered at length to the Snapper of the horrors of the noxious hogweed in our hedge, I armour myself as if working in a radioactive lab and clear the worst of it.

Feeling I’ve ‘conquered’ the dangerous foe, I start to think with my testicles, grab the root in both hands and proceed to pull like a loony.

With gloves glistening in toxic resin, I crash back into reality, and spend the next two weeks waiting for blisters to appear on my skin when I step out into sunlight.

I get away with it, but like the spuds and so much else in nature, it would’ve been better to leave well alone.

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