Whenever I travel I’m struck by the urge to turn the compost vigorously before I go. I think everyone has travel rituals, that are partly to do with avoiding thinking about the ridiculous level of risk represented by flight. So mine is this: I turn the compost so that I can leave it set for a few weeks, with plenty of air and hard work.
The garden is harder to leave. There’s always so much to be done, and I imagine that by the time I get back the mystery weed will have covered the house and car, it’s travelling so fast under these ideal Spring conditions. It’s time to plant.
Because it’s been dry, cold and windy, both the compost heaps are brittle and puffy. Small clumps of dried lawn clippings fly up when it’s like this, and it takes a while to break all the way down to the centre of the heap where there’s enough heat and moisture to spread. The corners of the heap are especially likely to dry out and it takes a while to figure out the best movement that will stir the edges in towards the centre.
But while I was doing this I could smell the limes breaking down. P will mind the compost while I’m away, and keep it turned, and there will be more fresh limes when I come home.
Working through the weeds and the salad leaves of the vegetable patch, sometimes the best thing to do is just put it in your mouth. Friend or foe? After weeks and weeks of rain, everything is the same astonishing green, and young leaves are young leaves.
Obviously there’s a slight risk of crashing to the ground like a suddenly poisoned Shakespearean heroine, but actually the reason this doesn’t happen is the collusion between taste and safety. Harmless weeds taste of nothing — lawn clippings. But the leaf with the bitter taste was so astoundingly bitter that it was impossible to imagine a second bite. The stevia leaves have grown and I shared one with Harper so that she could see what all the fuss was about, and then I tried to figure out if there was anything visual to distinguish the sorrel from the young spinach, so that I don’t have to do this every time. Sorrel has a very slightly rounded end to the leaf, and almost a sheen.
This all brought back a strong childhood memory of sitting in a flower bed eating parsley. Thankfully it’s not on the list of items that people crave who have that particular disordered longing for non-food. Eating the parsley was, even at the time, about building memory. The second time I did it, I remembered the first. And so on.
Of course, the real solution would be to plant in rows.
- Parsley (briellesavalon.wordpress.com)
I’m a binge gardener. I plant in binges, driven by the sight of seedlings at a market. They all say “ten weeks” and this seems like an impossible distance from planting to realisation, but the ten weeks race by. And now the stocks that were the size of a thumb are all in flower, making untidy pockets of colour in strange places, with the top heavy cornflowers falling down among them.
After two weeks of overwork and no weeding, the strange weed has the entire vegetable patch in its grip. I might never have been there. It’s like a ruined civilisation reclaimed by nature.
I’ve been reading a mountain gardener who puts it like this:
It seems that there is progress on the weed front but then a rainstorm comes along and suddenly, the garden looks like it hasn’t been tended to in several weeks.
So, patiently, begin again. Weed by weed. And the weed turns out not to be either secure in the soil or really very attached — it’s just trailing on the surface, trying to hold on to things. It no longer has any interest in disappearing. But it’s difficult to weed around leeks when they’re still pencil thin because their leaves droop down into the bed of weeds and its too easy to pull out the wrong thing.
But it’s not just the weeds. With the steady pattern of Spring rain and sun, the rocket has flowered and needs to come out. We’re eating the broccoli. The yellow rose has curled up around the tree with buds, and the jasmine is flowering. It really is Spring, and time to get back in the garden.
So I am clearing a patch for new seedlings.
The clouds are half way down the escarpment and the rain is low-hanging. I went out to look for the laundry basket and became distracted by all the signs of growth. The unspeakable weed seems to spread mostly above ground, and pulls out like handfuls of hair. But I’ve lost all hope that removing it is the end of the story.
The broccoli crop is now evidently turning from a big display of leaves into something resembling broccoli. Harper is astonished by this. It’s that big, goalpost shifting discovery that things you buy in shops can actually be grown in the ground. While I was clearing the weed from underneath it, I found her small footprints in the mud next to it.
Spring is everywhere. At night we can open the window, and the scent of the crooked daphne and wild freesias comes in. There’s a gardenia planted under the bedroom window that must be twenty to thirty years old. I so appreciate the forward thinking gardener who put it there, but probably missed out on the pleasure of it on a warm night.
All around the neighbourhood the jasmine is coming into flower, and everyone is talking about winter being over.
In the flower store I noticed a tiny bundle of daphne sprigs on sale for $22. This has made me look at my daphne with a bit more respect.
But it’s going to be tricky to turn this into a retirement strategy as it has the odd habit of flowering very close to the main stem, so it would be more or less impossible to pick the flowers. It almost has the look of epicormic growth following a bushfire, or on the other hand a tambourine.
I bought it as one of a pair of seedlings from a man who briefly ran a kind of backyard nursery from a tennis court. He closed down about six months later. He told me they were white daphne; one died and one turned out to be this pink oddity with the flowers growing on the trunk. But it only revealed this after not growing at all for five years. Every time I thought I would haul it out, it offered up a leaf or two, and then went back to being a stick in the ground. Then a couple of years ago it started to flower in this strange way, and also developed a lean.
So I have daphne that can’t be picked, but only appreciated when you walk past it in the garden, averting your gaze from its weird appearance. But if you stand with your back to it, it fills the air with its later winter scent, and you notice that the ground under your feet is getting a little warmer.
Three days of light but persistent rain, and the mystery weeds in the vegetable bed have the upper hand. The more I scrape them out, the faster they grow. I can’t identify either of them, but I’m satisfied there are only two. One has leaves like lemon balm, and one has diamond shaped leaves and a trailing aspect. I’ve pulled each out carefully to check that they’re not breaking away from a bulb of any sort, given my issues with oxalis and onion grass, but no, they really seem to come on a fine thread that belongs to nothing, slips out of the earth without breaking, and the next day there’s just as much. I haven’t the slightest idea how either of them propagates.
But I do have a strong childhood memory of mum weeding clover by hand out of the lawn when I was eight or nine. I had no idea why this was so important to her, but as I perch on my haunches picking crossly at these two invaders, I remember her in exactly this pose, absorbed in removing clover piece by piece.
P. says he admires my Sisyphean commitment to this task, and I do appreciate the cautionary and protective undertone. It’s a very gentle way of mentioning futility. (He also draws on his store of military knowledge to mention, again very kindly, that a war of attrition often meant in practice: attrition on both sides.)
To console myself I went to the garden store and bought a punnet of potbound and dried-up cornflower seedlings that were at the end of their tether. When I thumbed them out into the dirt I was really glad to be able to offer them some respite.
At the weekend my second compost heap was cold and dry. Having gutted it for the new vegetable patch, I then overwhelmed it with pizza boxes that I hadn’t torn up carefully. I just wanted to get them out of the way.
So I spent a session turning it, which was hard. Banged knuckles and regret. Then I got some of the pizza box pieces back out and retore them into smaller pieces, thinking that actually it’s a bit hard to ask a dormant heap to take on such large items.
Yesterday in the cold and drizzle I shuffled out to empty the kitchen scraps, and as I broke open the heap to bury them a bit, steam rose from the cooking middle. This compost magic gets me every time. It’s like a party trick. I made everyone come out and put their hands in the heap to feel the heat, but really I was just astonished and grateful at the way compost forgives so quickly and gets back to work.
I sometimes feel slightly awkward about the fact that I love the compost so much, and that in the up and down of academic life, compost makes me feel so competent and sorted out. So I was really delighted to read that The Dirty Lady has given her compost a name, as it shows that there’s someone much further out on the ledge than me. Here’s what she says about “the beloved heap”:
The compost heap is a place of worship for me, the living metaphor, the nucleus of transformation in the garden: garbage and clippings and slime turn into to dark, sweet soil, which in turn becomes leaves, flowers, and fruit.
Increasingly I think the secret to compost is just to respect the heap, and to try not to stuff it up.
- Midsummer Magic (dirtyladygardengazette.wordpress.com)