When I was a child living in Yorkshire I owned a mug, for drinking tea, with a little picture on the front of a child with its father watering flowers in a garden, using watering cans. A big watering can for the Dad and a small one for the son. Under the picture was the phrase “Helping Daddy”. It’s funny what we remember from our childhood isn’t it? But, like the child on the front of that mug, I used to help my dad in his garden once I was big enough to be of help.
As well as our gardens at home, front and back of the house, which were always a riot of colour, full of flowers and small shrubs, dad also had a huge vegetable garden just a few minute walk away….through the edge of the woods and down a back lane….where his widowed cousin Dora lived. Dora lost her husband in WW2 and lived alone in a house with a huge garden that she couldn’t manage on her own. The garden was divided in two by a path that ran from the front door down to the front gate. The old stone house stood at the very back of the section so all the gardens were visible to the front of the house. The path was the dividing line between Dora’s flower garden – mainly roses – and dad’s veggie garden.
So, from being about 8 or 9 years old I was kind of “volunteered” to help dad in the veggie garden. To begin with this mainly involved tedious things such as weeding, tidying, or fetching and carrying things for dad. As I got bigger I was given heavier work such as digging trenches for manuring/composting and using the wheelbarrow to fetch leaf mold from the woods to add to our compost pile, or other such barrow duties. I wasn’t particularly keen on the tasks, but enjoyed spending time with my dad. It amazed me how much he could grow in his garden and how well he (and I) kept it. Row after straight row of vegetables – Tomatoes, Beans, Peas, Carrots, Onions, Cabbage, Turnips, Spring Onions, Cauliflower, Beetroot, Potatoes, Lettuce and best of all, in a small garden to the side of the house was a very crowded strawberry bed. This garden was sheltered by the house on one side and walls on two other sides, providing a sunny warm area for the strawberries to thrive. Oh how I remember the taste of those succulent deep red strawberries – juicy and sweet.
At the time, I didn’t really appreciate the cycle of creation in front of me in that garden. Or of the life within the soil and how we helped to keep that cycle of healthy soil, healthy food going. The preparing and manuring of the soil in readiness for the planting of the seeds, the emergence of the first shoots of the plants, their continued growth to maturity and their ultimate harvest….interspersed with lots and lots of weeding and watering. Food on our table, and food for the family, friends and neighbours.
What I also remember is Dora bringing out sweet cups of tea for dad and I to drink and take a break from our toils, along with a plate of slices of cake or iced (frosted) buns – which always seemed to be slightly stale, but not so far gone that we wouldn’t risk eating them. You know, as a child I had no idea of the age of adults. Everyone who had finished school and started work seemed ancient to me, so one day when Dora asked me how old I thought she was I took a stab at 60….Oops. She was in her mid 40’s at the time so for a while after that she refused to talk to me.
I was fascinated by the worms in the soil – my main concern was how on earth they could breath underground. But I learned how vital they were to the health of the soil, just as I learned how vital bees were (and still are) to the wellbeing of the strawberries. I would sit and watch for ages as the bees went around their business of calling on each strawberry flower before moving on to the next, pollinating as they buzzed here and there. Not that nature asked for our help, but we did what we could as we added compost and mulch to help keep the soil protected and healthy.
One of the worse most odious and rank tasks (literally), that dad gave me was taking a wheelbarrow up the hill to the butchers yards to collect fresh animal manure. The butcher, Clifford, slaughtered animals on the premises in a yard at the back of the shop. Animals, I guess, are like humans in respect of their reaction to their forthcoming slaughter – shit scared doesn’t even begin to describe it. Let’s just say that there was always lots of manure and straw to transport from the butcher’s yard back down the hill to the garden. A funny thing about my journey’s up and down the hill to the yard and back. On the way up the hill, with a clean wheelbarrow, I would not see anyone I knew on the streets. On the way back, wheelbarrow full of stinking shit, a liberal amount of which I always seemed to manage to get over myself, (the smell of which seemed to linger for days regardless of how much soap I used, or how raw I scrubbed my hands and arms), surrounded by flies, and I would see lots of people who knew me, including at least one pretty girl from school. The manure patrol did little to enhance my reputation with the opposite sex, but worked wonders in the garden.
I write this, some fifty years later after moving to the opposite side of the world and have now become the keen gardener that my dad once was. I am sitting on my terrace, overlooking the garden at the front of my own home. Poppies swaying in the breeze, next to one of a half dozen stands of raspberry canes. The bees from our own hive, buzzing among the plants, work their magic. The canes heavy in both flowers and fruit, some fruit still green, but others turning a pale pink on their way to succulent scarlet ripeness. Another week should do it. In the garden to my left tomato plants are thriving and already bearing small green tomatoes. I was just having a wander around the garden – gin and tonic in hand – counting up the tomato plants. Last year we had around 70. This year we’re up to 80 at current count, with more (perhaps another 50) in seed trays and plant pots to be planted out in the coming days. Everything that we don’t either eat or give away to family and neighbours will be preserved either as tomato sauce or whole, in jars, for later use.
Oh well, it’s been another hot, late spring, day here in Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand – my home for the last 30 years. Time to end this post and give my plants a good watering.
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