Today has been a strange and beautiful gardening day after an unpromising start.
My mother’s dog, Boris, whom we are reluctantly housing for ten days while she is on holiday, woke us as usual at 6 AM with his rusty, needy bark, and the sound of slobber hitting the walls as he shook his jowls for his early morning stretch. As I tried to ignore him I remembered that something exciting was happening down at the allotment in half-an-hour – today was the first of the Shed Sessions. A couple of You Tube superstars were going to film musicians playing a session in the rural wilds of my west London plot. If it was a success my shed – their shed – might be famous.
A friend had agreed to meet me to walk the monster dog, but when we got to the park entrance the gates were barred “for essential tree maintenance”. A gardener told us, through the bars of his dysfunctional rhyme, that they were spraying against oak processionary moths. Although booked three weeks ago, no one had bothered to warn the public until that morning. Unhappy dog walkers, joggers and commuters hoping to cut through the park clustered unhappily at the gates.
We drove instead to the allotment and checked that the filming was proceeding well, and that my chard was not being trampled. The musician, Shannon Saunders, arrived as we were leaving, silver-haired and petite, looking slightly terrified, whether at the thought of the millions of hits she could anticipate on YouTube, or at the primitive facilities. I had hidden away the slug pellets and the roundup and hoped nothing compromising would be in shot. The pellets claim to be bio-friendly, but the roundup certainly isn’t. I hardly ever use it, but once in a blue moon when the bindweed gets me down I paint the odd leaf and the poison tracks down and everything around that leaf looks sickly and chemically compromised, and I feel terribly guilty.
The sound recordist was looking ruefully up at the sky. The flight path has changed and today the planes landing at Heathrow are going overhead every 60 seconds. Poor Shannon will have to sing fast. The shed experience is proving a learning curve in many ways. The crew had enquired about the power supply and I told them that the digging used sweat and the mowing used petrol; I recommended they bring lots of batteries. There was no loo so the boys would have to pee on the compost heap (they all looked shocked) and the girls would have to cross their legs, or go behind the vine, and watch out for the goose grass which seems particularly lush and sticky this year. We towed our dogs away and left the film-makers to it.
We walked by the River Thames, near the finish of the boat race, where in recent years Oxford University trash Cambridge each spring, unless a mad Australian swims into their path. The elderflowers are incredible this year, the heads a foam of promise, with their scent reminiscent of cordial, lemon sorbet and cats’ piss. My failsafe recipe for elderflower cordial, given me three years earlier by the very precise retired MoD procurer who has the most disciplined allotment in the whole of London, requires 20 flower heads for 3 pounds of sugar and 3 pints of water, and if you collect them in bags of 20 heads as you pick, you have done much of the measuring already. You also need two lemons and 2 oz of citric acid, which you can only buy from the chemist, and only after proving that you are not a drug dealer. Last year I had to bribe them with a bottle of elderflower cordial to prove my credentials.
My friend’s well-behaved dog sat calmly while we picked. My mother’s dog draped a line of drool across her back which I did not point out as my friend carefully placed the frothy heads into our (clean) dog poo bags. The mixture infuses for twelve hours and then I fill bottles of the stuff and freeze it for use throughout the year. It’s one of the most successful things I make and provides a good gift. Many people return the empty bottles to me with an ingratiating expression, hoping that this good behaviour will result in another bottle of cordial.
In the afternoon we went to guerrilla-garden the beds in the High Road. Since Hounslow Council outsourced all its parks’ and road maintenance several years ago there have been many complaints. Most of these have been to do with accountability since it is now hard to complain or discover who is responsible for various aspects. The flower beds all along the main shopping area of the high road seem to have fallen through the cracks. Having left a few boring municipal evergreens in place in some of the beds, the rest was simply covered in membrane and woodchip and left depressingly empty.
In December I got an email from the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association offering a donation from Taylor’s Bulbs. The only condition was that the bulbs be planted before Christmas. I immediately responded, expecting a small carrier bag-sized portion of bulbs. A few days later the postman staggered up my path, his arms spread to their full breadth carrying a huge heavy box. I looked somewhat aghast, and he grinned and said, “I’ve got four more like that in the van for you.” I gave one to the Hammersmith Community Garden Association to plant around Ravenscourt Park, one to Cultivate London for the Brentford area, and one to the Dukes Meadows Trust to plant along the Thames. The final box, full of daffodils, narcissi, tulips and alliums we had planted along the High Road. It was successful but now the early bulbs had finished, apart from the alliums sphaeracephalon. I had spent a frustrating hour unwinding bindweed from them earlier in the week and now their little drumstick heads looked perky and relieved.
We took three trays of sunflower, cosmos, kale and nasturtium seedlings in the back of Nick’s car. It was hard planting, pushing aside the woodchip and hacking through the membrane. Half way through, Nick got a parking ticket, even though one warden had said we were okay at the loading bay. His colleague couldn’t have cared less and ignored our protests. What a soul-destroying job, ruining people’s days, and penalising good guys like us. The warden certainly looked as if his soul had long ago been destroyed. £55 if we pay it immediately. Nasty Serco. It felt like a poor reward. No sooner had we got all the plants in, with the sun flowers bending dangerously in the breeze, than a sharp and sudden storm blew up. We ran for cover, the planting was watered and we crossed our fingers that the sunflowers would survive the wind.