Ten left-field ways to make your garden grow


This week I am handing over the first section of the column to HARRY HOPKINS.

I’VE coined a phrase which sums up my whole approach to growing stuff: ‘foolish gardening’. I use this term because when you challenge the mainstream about anything and everything they’ll call you a fool. Gardening is no different. Here are my basic ten ‘foolish rules’ for growing worthwhile crops, which may just make you productive in your own way.

Rule 1. Grass is food for sheep and cattle. Humans cannot eat it, even in extremis. The effort in maintaining cut grass is substantial, not to mention the financial outlay on mowers, fuel, weedkillers and ancillary equipment like shears and edging tools. Cutting grass can be dangerous (it causes an estimated 6,500 injuries a year). If you’re using electricity you have a chance of slicing through the cable and being hurled across your plot with a 240-volt charge as your booster. The message is clear: get rid of lawns and grass wherever possible. If you must leave a patch for kids and dogs, make it as small as you can.

Rule 2. You can grow anything anywhere if you have a mind to. Admittedly you’d be pushed to cultivate oranges in the Outer Hebrides, but even there you could erect a greenhouse and give it a shot. So don’t be put off by the naysayers who say you can’t grow this or that just because it comes from warmer climes. Window sills, porches, plastic tents, garden frames, greenhouse structures and balconies all create microclimates. Sheltered areas in back yards and passageways can protect plants from wind, frost, rain and direct sun and can become surprisingly productive.

Rule 3. Be adventurous. Even without a garden you can grow things in all sorts of containers, bags, sacks, old shoes and biscuit tins, and on windowsills. If you’ve noticed that dandelions can push their way through tarmac and buddleias will grow in a gutter, this tells you that plants of all descriptions lust for life and will strive to adapt to what they must. Give them a helping hand: chances are they will thank you for it.

Rule 4. There are no experts. There are only people who, by trial and error, by success and failure, have an experience unique to themselves. I have yet to meet a gardener who is not willing, indeed happy, to share what they have learned.

Rule 5. Recycling. You don’t need to ditch your growing medium and buy ‘new’ compost every year. Like all else in the marketplace, advertising and advice will exhort you to buy new, but compost can be reused time and again when mixed with blood, fish and bonemeal and other organic additives such as seaweed solution.

Rule 6. Accept that your crops aren’t just tasty to you but also to the creatures in your garden, including birds. Don’t ever use chemical insecticides or fungicides. Natural alternatives are available to combat pests. Simple solutions such as soapy water and garlic are good for dealing with aphids, but must be used regularly.

Rule 7. Learn to prune. For some reason this most basic art, which was mastered by ancient civilisations, has become a mystery to the modern mind. It’s not difficult. In fact it’s easy, but you must take the time to learn the basics. The market has developed dwarfing rootstocks to keep your fruit trees small because customers want to buy trees which stay compact without any input from them. This is false economy. A dwarfing rootstock by its very nature is weak, will always require staking, is prone to disease and has a short lifespan. You can keep fruit trees very small on vigorous root stocks which are longer lasting, develop strong root systems and stay much healthier by judicious pruning at the right time of year.

Rule 8. Seeds. Use-by dates on packets of seed can be ignored in most instances. They are there to promote extra sales for the merchants. Left-over seed can be kept in the fridge (not freezer) for the following year(s). Stored properly, seed can last indefinitely. It’s great fun to use seed from your own crops and this is surprisingly easy to do. This works best with heritage varieties which come true to type. Hybrids don’t come true and sometimes don’t germinate at all, but you can still give them a try and see what happens. You can grow tomato plants from supermarket tomatoes by harvesting the seed. This seems to work well on the ‘cherry’ types.

Rule 9. A foolish gardener is a happy gardener. By throwing off the constraints of many established practices and ploughing your own furrow, I guarantee that you will be happier, healthier, more contented and infinitely more patient as a result of your time spent in growing stuff. Without meaning to sound too philosophical, by taking a seed, grafting a tree or striking a cutting and nurturing it through its existence, you are assisting in the creation of life, and that borders on the supernatural.

Rule 10. Cultivate a benign attitude, so that when you step into your growing area you radiate loving vibes that your plants will respond to. Don’t believe in talking to them? Why not? What have you got to lose by getting into this habit? If you fear that you may be overheard by neighbours and they may think you are a trifle crazy, what difference will it make? My neighbours probably think I’m crackers anyway, so I might as well confirm it. Plants are living organisms and all manner of life responds best to kindness. Do plants have awareness? Probably. You might just be surprised at how they respond.

That’s about it. The ten steps to foolish gardening. What have you got to lose in giving them a try? Nothing, I venture, and much to gain.


Fowl of the Week


Back to me: When I was a child my grandmother and two maiden aunts (from the generation which lost so many young men in the Great War) lived in the village of Crick, near Rugby. My aunt Mollie kept Light Sussex hens and I still remember their lovely soft crooning as they went about their business, the smell of the bran mash that was prepared for them, and the warmth of the fresh eggs in the nesting boxes. Fortunately Mollie must have taken good advice and the wire netting fence round their enclosure was (to me) immensely high, and I don’t remember hearing about marauding foxes.

The Light Sussex is the most popular of eight recognised colours of the Sussex breed of poultry. The others are Speckled, Brown, Silver, White, Buff, Red and Coronation. You can see good pictures of them all here. I think the Coronation is particularly beautiful, but it is one of the rarest. (Though Coronation chicken might be an unfortunate name.)

As you might guess, the Sussex was developed in the county, and is one of the oldest British breeds, possibly having arrived with the Romans. It is a dual-purpose bird, suitable for the table and for producing eggs (up to 250 a year for some strains). The Rare Breeds Survival Trust, which keeps all native chicken breeds on its watchlist, says: ‘It is a docile, gentle, friendly and alert breed and makes a good broody. It is a good choice for the beginner.’

Here are some Light Sussexes that have just been given some corn. I’d say the squabbling is minimal.


Wheels of the Week


This is a Morris Marina L 1700cc, made in 1979 and registered in May 1980.

Design of the Marina started shortly after the merger of Leyland Motors, manufacturers of buses and lorries, with British Motor Holdings, parent of Austin and Morris cars, to form British Leyland. The new management, mainly from Leyland, were shocked to find that the only new model being developed was the Austin Maxi, so they conceived the Marina as a rival to the Ford Escort and Cortina, falling between them in size. The aim was to produce the Marina quickly and market it for no more than five years as a stopgap until a genuinely new model could take its place. It thus made use of bits and pieces from previous models, including chassis components from the Morris Minor.

The BL board decided to make the Marina at the ex-Morris Motors plant at Cowley, which was largely still as it was in the 1920s and had insufficient capacity, so the place had to rebuilt. The engine assembly line was bisected by a road so Leyland had to build an overpass. All this increased costs. As a result many short cuts were taken and compromises made.

The car was launched in 1971, having taken the very short period of 18 months to develop, and it was found to have all sorts of problems. Production was also hampered by industrial unrest. Despite all these stumbling blocks it sold well, outdoing the Escort in 1973. By the time production ended in 1980 1.2million had been built. Still, you can’t please everyone and it features on many lists of ‘worst cars ever made’.

There are not many left. The website How Many Left says there are 27 licensed to be on the road and 35 off the road. So if you are yearning for a Marina, this 1974 model with 38,712 miles on the clock is on eBay for £5,495

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