As the light drew back over the hills to the west and a soupy gloom slunk in around the garden, I crouched down at the tiny plot of vegetables sheltering beside the south wall of the greenhouse. At five square metres or so it is not exactly providing for all our needs, but this is almost as much as we have managed in this first year of growing.
The soil is damp but not too cold, and I press my fingers in around the stubby-bodied carrots and pull. They are a disappointing treasure, emerging finger-length at best, with most even shorter than that – an inch or two of root to show for a whole summer’s patience. Autumn King this variety is called, but these specimens look more runtish than regal. The fault is not in the seed though; the fault is in the soil.There have been successes this year – a great bounty of fat courgettes, some salad leaves, lettuce and a few spring onions – but our first attempt at coaxing vegetables from this ground has been largely disappointing.
We started late, if truth be told. When the house became ours, at the end of March, our first priority was inside. Day after day was spent hauling out carpets, tearing down plasterboard, insulating, sanding, painting, varnishing. Stripped wallpaper piled up around us like fronds of damp, claggy seaweed, and it seemed we might never escape from the mess or make this house into a home.
Beyond a few brief excursions, the garden was almost ignored. On one dry day I tried to turn over a patch of the scrubby back park for planting, but layers of thick roots and stony soil resisted both spade and rotavator. All big plans were laid to rest and alternatives were temporarily postponed.
The backup scheme was simple, born of limited time, energy and easily clearable space. We planted potatoes, onions and a few brassica seedlings in the vaguely brown square I had scraped out of the back park; courgettes, cucumbers, peppers, salad and tomatoes went in the greenhouse; and we squeezed whatever we could fit into the narrow bed just outside, from which I’d hauled several overgrown clumps of Lady’s Mantle and other unidentified plants.
There were numerous disappointments through the summer. Out the back, the onions and brassicas failed to grow at all, though the tatties – Cara, Kestrel and Shetland Blacks – did well. In the greenhouse, tomatoes refused to ripen and peppers failed to flourish. In the little bed, almost everything is stunted – the beetroot, neeps and cabbage, the leeks and parsnips, the tiny carrots. The soil is just not good enough for vegetables, it seems. And making it good will take work. It will take time.
Compost and manure are needed; seasons of gradual improvement are required. The feel of those little roots between my fingers reminded me that, if we wish to continue, it will not be a case of just planting and hoping for the best. We will need to make more effort. We will need to think about the soil.
Not so long ago, owning a house seemed like a great responsibility and a greater commitment. But now I’m not so sure. Ownership itself commits us to nothing, and leaves us responsible for not much more than payment. The desire to grow bigger carrots, however: that is a commitment. The soil demands fidelity – a virtue that has no place in the housing market – and it asks for care.
If we can leave things at least as good as when we found them then perhaps that is good enough. Perhaps that is the best that we can do.
I gathered a few things together – the mud-coated carrots, a fist-sized neep and a courgette from the greenhouse. The blackcap was calling again from the back park, with a staccato signal that bristled the air.
And then a response. Another bird. Then another. And another. Five blackcaps were scattered around the garden, announcing themselves in the gathering night. I could see none of them, but I listened on until the birds were silent again, then carried the vegetables into the house, where the smell of cooking had already filled the warm, bright kitchen.