Friday, March 25, 2005

Mangetout, Mulch, and Migraines

I am still well below par, which means that very little of the gardening I want to get done is getting done. And by very little I mean--actually--none. Instead of gardening, I’ve been reading a wonderful little gem of a book called Urban Gardener by Elspeth Thompson and doing quite a bit of wistful dreaming.

This book appeals to me on multiple levels. 1) The author’s name is Elspeth, which may well be the very best first name a woman can possibly have. 2) Elspeth is British (obviously), and we all know what an Anglophile I am. 3) My favorite style of garden is the English cottage garden.

A true cottage garden is a splendid thing. Not only is it beautiful, brimming over with all my favorite flowers—delphiniums, lavender, roses, foxgloves, clematis, hydrangeas, poppies, and primroses—but it’s practical and productive. Keen cottagers grow fruits and vegetables right alongside the flowers and do so in innovative and aesthetically appealing ways—training an espaliered apple tree against a wall or planting neat rows of cabbages or carrots along a path. And that’s not all! They might have a couple of bee hives, chickens or ducks, a grape arbor (so they can make their own wine) and, of course, a darling little shed and/or greenhouse for giving the tomatoes a head start in spring. I know all this because I have closely studied a copy of The Cottage Garden by Christopher Lloyd and Richard Bird, which I checked out from the library on November 4, 2003 and have been renewing faithfully for more than a year. The book even has recipes for making elderberry or elderflower wine, hard cider, and something called “perry” (cider made from pears)—all of these beverages, of course, to be made with produce from one’s own garden. I just love the idea of that sort of self-sufficiency. Anyway, I consult the book again and again, as inspiration for creating a cottage garden in my own back yard, although true English cottage gardens rarely feature gigantic sun-obliterating Douglas firs as my back yard does.

Quite a little digression there. I could go on and on, but back to Elspeth’s book.

As I mentioned in Monday’s post, Elspeth’s book is a collection of three years’ worth of columns she wrote for the Sunday Telegraph. The columns alternate between being about establishing a flowery cottage garden behind her house and the goings-on in her allotment (a plot in a community garden). That’s right. She actually has two gardens and (clearly) buckets and buckets more energy than I do. I love reading about the crops she’s chosen to grow and was all proud of my British English-to-American English translating skills, as I effortlessly translated courgette to zucchini and aubergine to eggplant as I read. Then she started talking about mangetout. Huh? My one year of high school French suggested “eat all” or “eat it all,” but that still didn’t give me much of a hint. Mangetout, it turns out, are snow peas, which makes sense because you do eat the pea and its pod, so you do “eat it all.” Here’s something I’ve never understood though. Why do the British use French terms for eggplants, zucchinis, and snow peas (and possibly other fruits or vegetables I can’t think of right now)? It’s always been my impression that the British are not terribly fond of the French.

Anyway, it is delightful to read about Elspeth’s transformation of her allotment. A sample:

It is almost impossible to be taken seriously on an allotment without a compost bin, so I am relieved and delighted to report the delivery of a very fine example of the genre, made for me by my boyfriend as a belated, if not madly romantic birthday present. Its design—two adjoining square bins with walls of slatted wood—is based on the rather ritzy one featured in Terence Conran’s DIY, but instead of the fresh new planks favoured by Sir Tel, we have used some ancient tongue-and-groove panelling.... Very smart it looks, too—though sufficiently home-brewed to win the approval of the ‘makeshift and make-do’ philosophy that is part of allotment life. Partly through circumstance (allotments are not usually the preserve of the well-off) and partly due to the thrifty resourcefulness that seems ingrained in most gardeners, whatever their income, nobody uses a length of new string where a sliced-off sock or recycled bin-bag tie will do. To have won wholehearted approval, we should probably have tacked together four old builders’ pallets with nails and crowned the heap with a square of festering old carpet, but I’m glad we didn’t.

I love the bit about the “festering old carpet.” Reading about all of Elspeth’s industriousness is sort of helping keep my mind off of the dearth of industrious digging and planting outside my back door. Half a dozen delphiniums have been languishing--dangerously rootbound, I’m sure, in their four-inch pots--on the patio for two weeks now. It’s all I can manage to get out there and water them every couple of days. Lifting a trowel and plunging it into the earth would be too taxing.

And as of yesterday, another monumental garden burden/opportunity has arisen—literally—in the form of a mountain of mulch that was delivered and dumped on our neighbor’s parking strip. The thing is so massive that our neighbor felt it necessary to decorate it liberally with orange hazard cones and e-mail me immediately begging me to haul off as many wheelbarrow loads as possible.

Under normal circumstances, I'd be overjoyed. Free mulch! However, I am still suffering from ongoing lacklustrousness and have had a migraine for two days. Plus, the wheelbarrow is pinioned behind the car, two bicycles, and a stack of wicked and twisted tomato cages that are just dying to poke out one or both of my eyes. I thought about getting the wheelbarrow out and toddling over to the mulch mountain yesterday afternoon. After two seconds of thinking about how much back-and-forth toddling (and shoveling), I'd have to do, I decided to think about it tomorrow. Or the day after. Or the day after that...or the day after that.

I know it’s tiresome to read about my still being marginally ill, so I’ll say no more about it.


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