Chris Palmer

“You must be mad.”

“Most people downsize at your age.”

“What’s going to happen when you get arthritic knees?”

“You’ll be a slave to it.”

“No holidays in the sun for you, then.”

“It’s a bit too large for artificial grass, isn’t it?”

“No time for golf, then. Can I have your clubs?”

“Can’t you be satisfied with your allotment?”

The reaction from our friends and relatives to our announcement that we intended to move to a house with a much larger garden was not universally positive. True, I was the wrong side of sixty-five, I was struggling to make my allotment fully productive, and my back was not wholly reliable, but the allure of a good-sized garden without the time constraints of full-time work was irresistible.
It was the same sense of excitement that I experienced when we bought our first house, a semi-detached post war property with a tiny triangle of north-faced garden. Previously we had lived in two flats without even a window box, the first paying to our landlady the princely sum of six pounds a week (yes, that long ago!).

In the years that have ensued, I consistently recognise that the more I garden the more I learn, and the more I need to learn. I am by no means an expert, more a battle-scared enthusiast with a gardening life going back forty years, at least. I use the word ‘battle’ advisedly as it feels at times as if there is a challenge on many fronts with a wonderful reward if you can keep your head. A good example is, of course, the weather.

I garden in South Ayrshire, close to the coast. It is a generally favourable maritime climate in contrast to that faced by gardeners only a few miles away, say at Patna or further inland at Cumnock. Where I garden, I expect just a few days of snow, if any, plus days of frost but nothing extreme. Three years ago, we bought two pots of large canna lilies from Belleisle Conservatory. Tall and elegant, they were striking mid-summer additions to our collections of pot plants. At the end of the autumn, to protect them over winter, I put them in an old shed which is itself quite sheltered by trees and a high hedge. I smothered both pots in a huge double duvet and left them alone. Those of you who can remember last November/early December will recall an exceptionally heavy frost, down to -15C in places. That was the end of our plants. I should have moved them into the well-insulated garage for a few days. You see, you are never too old to learn.

This is a season then to respect the weather and listen carefully to every forecast. It is also, however, the time to plan for the rest of the year. Tatties for example. What can be better than buying freshly dug local potatoes and eating them that day, smothered in butter? Maybe even a coating of oatmeal as an Arran farmer used to recommend to us. My mouth is watering as I type this.

But there is something better, I promise you. Growing your own tatties, not paying the exorbitant prices that local stores charge, and getting an even better taste. It begins now with the purchase of seed potatoes and starting the chitting process (no, it’s not a spelling mistake!). Once garden centres and hardware stores have cleared their shelves of Christmas items and the sales are over, seed potatoes begin to appear. I’ve checked my garden diaries (I know, it’s sad, but I can’t help it) and I note that I usually buy mine in the second half of January. I will have saved a few egg boxes and cleared a north facing windowsill. I prefer to buy them loose rather than in net bags. I like to feel each one and check that it is firm and healthy. The size of a duck’s egg is ideal in my view. There are usually a good number of varieties available. My preference for yield and taste are Charlotte and Kestrel. At home I place each seed potato in the egg tray, with the rose end uppermost, and leave it to chit. In other words, it will start to grow shoots which eventually will give the tuber (which in effect is what it is) a head start when it is planted out. My father would rub out all but two or three shoots, and I know some gardeners do that to encourage a small number of strong shoots, but I am happy to let as many flourish as possible, and it seems to work fine for me. As to planting them out, whether in tubs or in the vegetable plot, I’ll leave that to our next edition, by which time we will be heralding spring.

Chitting tatties is an example of stealing a march on spring. Another similar process, but outside in the garden, is forcing rhubarb. This is the simple but canny idea of covering crowns of rhubarb in mid-winter so that the first growth develops in the dark. The pale pink stalks that you uncover after a period of weeks, but much earlier than the normal uncovered plant, are more tender and tastier. Traditionally the forcing was carried out by a large terracotta pot, but I use an old large flowerpot or even a simple bucket with a brick on the top. It works just as well but is not so pleasing to look at. That leads me to some further thoughts about the uses we gardeners put to diverse items of hardware that might easily have been thrown out in a conventional household.

In the last twelve months I have used the following items in my day-to-day gardening work: egg boxes, yoghurt pots, ice cream containers, milk containers, fresh meat and vegetable trays, old CDs, wee tonic cans, two or three wire coat hangers, shreds of wrapping paper, several old T-shirts and two pairs of tights. A penny for your thoughts on the use I put to the last item!

I recognise that the list sounds like the down-market contents of the conveyor belt on The Generation Game. My serious point, however, is that we gardeners can both save money and help in recycling by the way we work on our gardens. Another illustration is collecting leaves in autumn and storing them to create our own leaf mould in a year’s time. It is probably too late to embark on this now, but it is worth considering come the autumn. I simply create a wire netting enclosure, say a foot or so high, with a piece of chicken wire and a few posts. This keeps the leaves together. They slowly decompose and if kept moist produce a free and effective soil improver.

In response then to the concerns of friends and relatives, a new Ayrshire gardening year has started, and I have no regrets about having a larger garden. I have dispensed with my allotment and look forward to another fruitful and colourful season, and I hope to share my experiences with you.