Wednesday 3 May 2017

A Proper Job

I recently remarked to Mrs Cloister that Spring seems to be hurtling by at a very unforgiving rate. We’re just about keeping pace but the garden seems to be mocking us for our ‘days off’ during Winter or time spent on other tasks. ‘Ha-ha!’ it says, ‘Still clearing ground, are we? Should have done that months ago when you had time!’ But when is time ever abundant? There is, however, no escaping what needs to be done and no quick way to do it. That’s the rub with gardening; there are few shortcuts and fewer still that won’t come back to bite you. There’s no computer that’s going to dig and manure the beds or help us drill line after line of vegetables. There is no labour-saving device that will help to pot-on seedlings or turn a compost heap. Preparation and hard work is all, and I believe in getting things right.

This is where an element of frustration comes in. The inevitable tension between the time available and the need to do ‘a proper job’. Of course, time must also be spent acquiring the knowledge and skills applicable to each task, and for novices like us, this takes us all the longer.

The concept of ‘doing a proper job’ is not new to horticulture. It’s always one that I associate with our Victorian forebears and the pre-war, ordered walled gardens of the English country house. It’s also one I associate with the amateur (not amateurish) gardener, on their allotment patch or private garden, whether ‘digging for victory’ or growing for pleasure. When visiting my parents, I still like to thumb my Dad’s worn copy of the late and great ‘Percy Thrower’s Every Day Gardening – In Colour.’ Yes, in colour! It draws one into a methodical world of horticultural wisdom, laced with practical common sense. The pictures also allow one to muse on such thoughts as; how long could I double-dig for in a jacket, collar and tie without expiring?

Pig Row recently posted on the thirtieth anniversary of the airing of the Victorian Kitchen Garden, a gardening classic full of charm and insight. The late Harry Dodson with his engaging Hampshire burr takes the viewer effortlessly through the seasons and back into a seemingly forgotten world. The encyclopaedic knowledge, the correct techniques, the right tools for the job – and the time to do the job properly. It’s hard not to feel some sense of nostalgia for this world and a desire to stamp upon one’s own garden a good dose of Victorian order. In fact, I bore Mrs C with just these concepts most weekends. But there is a serious point to be made; there is reason behind neat rows of beans and correctly spaced drills of carrots. The aesthetically pleasing spectacle of a well-ordered vegetable garden is often only a by-product of the hard-headed science and geometry that ensures a garden meets its productive capacity and is accessible to tend and maintain. I don’t enjoy numbers per se but a garden is all numbers, a rich tapestry of practical mathematics. If you can count, the chances are you can begin to grow vegetables successfully.

Few of us have the time (or perhaps inclination) to replicate the exactitude of the Victorian Kitchen Garden even on a small scale, but that doesn’t mean we don’t want to do a proper job. Our rows may be a little wonky, our soil not quite as conditioned as we may wish for; we may yearn for a tenth of the knowledge of a Victorian journeyman gardener, but the desire exists to bring some order from the chaos and use our land as productively as we can. We still want to learn new skills and develop existing ones, and we want the satisfaction of downing tools at the end of a day and being able to say that, come what may, we’ve done a proper job.