Gardening David Wheeler
Unable to breach the pensioner-proof plastic packaging, I was recently denied a lunchtime sandwich.
Admittedly, and thankfully only briefly, I was feeling feeble that day, somewhat barnacled and spent – you know, old – which made me think of those similarly afflicted in the longer term.
How, I wondered, might I enthuse, inspire and re-invigorate my fellow seniors who’ve already, and possibly reluctantly, settled for lengthy daylight hours in the armchair? How could I get them out and into the garden, if they have one? If they haven’t, it’s pretty likely they’ll know someone who has. Volunteering is an option. If that sounds like too much of a commitment, then simply give a chum a helping hand.
The physical act of gardening, even done slowly and lethargically, dispenses with a multitude of potentially boring but beneficial formal exercises, thus eliminating mind-numbing repetition. While it can be purely physical – though don’t attempt the kind of heavy lifting that could plop you into A&E – interest in it can also be cerebral. Swap the fireside Sudoku for reading, say, a meaty, well-illustrated plant encyclopedia, neatly told sweeping horti-history or something on garden design. They’re not as dry as you might think. Above all, perhaps, garden with a friend – in double harness, so to speak. It’s thoroughly companionable.
But I know nothing about gardening, I hear you say. Nor did I, until I did some – admittedly 60 or more years ago. Since then, I’ve planted untold numbers of trees, shrubs, perennials and bulbs, sown myriad seeds and turned more sods than I care to remember. Apart from a short sequence of half a dozen, part-time, day-a-week lessons 40 years ago, I have learnt what I know by observing, osmosis and trial and error. Plants want to live. You need to work hard to kill them. So, with a watchful eye on growth and health, it’s easy to avoid disasters.
And then there’s the pride of ownership. A sporadic gardener needs but a few tools: fork, spade, trowel and secateurs being plenty to start with. This essential quartet occupies little space in the boot of a car or in a broom cupboard, up against the vacuum cleaner.
Buy the best-quality tools affordable. Stainless-steel fork, spade and trowel (a long-handled version of the latter will help to prevent excessive back-bending) with wooden handles are a joy to use and easy to clean. Their timber shafts require no more than an occasional rub with linseed oil.
Secateurs come in two principal styles: bypass (working like scissors) and anvil (crushing) types. Brand-leaders and professionals generally agree that bypass models are the more useful and versatile.
Finally, plants. Whether it’s a window box, a few tubs beside the door, a previously unkempt stretch of backyard or a small or shared allotment, opportunities to tend the plants of your choice are boundless. In my twenties, I supplied most of my culinary-minded friends with French tarragon and flat-leaved parsley from a small, north-facing window box outside my London bedsit. Not surprisingly, these days, sweating over eight acres of garden, I occasionally hanker for those diminished dimensions.
A friend restricts herself to potato cultivation in a trio of dustbins with drainage holes in the bottom. Her adequate crop of Ratte, Pink Fir Apple and Charlotte yields freshness and flavours, she says, unknown to the likes of Messrs Sainsbury, Tesco and Morrison.
Ultimately, then, gardening is beneficial and pleasing in so many ways. It promotes human health, stimulates our brains and provides desirable decorative and edible plants.
It’s spring. If you don’t start now, you never will. You’ll be thanking me by midsummer.