This is not the vegetable garden of my dreams. No-one would call it a Permaculture Paradise, a Garden of Eden or a Perfect Parterre. This is the naughty corner, where plants go to be punished.
Technically, it is a vegetable garden - there are vegetables growing here. On the left is a tower of Scarlet Runner Beans and they seem to be pretty happy, producing lots of pods at the moment and still flowering. But the rest are neglected children. The ruby chard is just hanging on. The zucchinis are collapsing with mildew. The tomato plants are stunted. The globe artichokes are dead sticks topped with dead flowers. And the rest are weeds. I am a bad Earth Mother.
Oh, every year I start out with good intentions. I am inspired by seed catalogues or magazine photos or even garden visits. You know those gardens - the vegetables are lush and productive, complemented by colourful annuals blooming under or around them. Rainbow chard underplanted with Gaillardia; neat rows or blocks of coloured lettuces, marigolds and ferny carrot tops; architectural artichokes with pink pansies foaming at their feet; all edged with low hedges of lavender or rows of curled parsley or chives. I fall in love with these gardens, usually in Winter or early Spring. I tell myself that I can do this. I draw plans and make lists. I buy plants and order seeds. I go out and look at the site, covered in grass and weeds, then come inside and plan some more. Eventually, I pull on the gloves and begin to weed.
Weeding is an intense activity. The world narrows to a metre or so of green and brown, then down still further, to that thick, stubborn clump that won't budge. I dig and heave, grunt a bit, then dig and heave some more. Finally it gives way, almost throwing me over backwards, dirt spraying up into my face, to mingle with the sweat running down. My face is now a mud pie. My arms feel like they belong to someone else. I have read that some gardeners consider weeding to be a meditative experience. Uh huh.
Let us draw a curtain over the painful hours, days or weeks. At some point My One True Love takes pity on his groaning wife and throws his muscles into the job, too. Finally the area is relatively clear. I go to the nursery and buy more vegetable seedlings to replace the ones that have now died in their punnets. Let's not dwell on why. I plant, I fertilise (a bit) and I mulch (sometimes). Then I wait with anticipation and pride. I have a real vegetable garden. It has plants growing in it. This is incredibly reassuring.
I don't know why it is, but if I have a cared-for vegetable patch, I feel like a successful gardener. Perhaps it goes back to childhood. My father was and is a keen vegetable grower and his garden has always been immaculate. A weed wouldn't dare to show its head. His tomato plants are six feet high and built like wrestlers. The soil resembles fruitcake - not the supermarket kind, but the one your granny makes, if you're very lucky.
My soil is clayey and has lumps, but the plants grow. They begin to produce. I weed around them and water them and pick things. Then, at some point during summer, it all falls apart. One day I go to the end of the yard to hang out the washing, and suddenly all is not well. There are holes in leaves, there is wilting and drooping, there are weeds. So many weeds. And it is hot, and I am tired, and how did this happen? The truth is, I am not a disciplined person. I procrastinate. I get bored. I have enthusiasms and good intentions, but they don't last as long as a vegetable garden. They die and soon the garden begins to follow.
Still I want my picture-perfect paradise. So I am not giving up. I am not waiting until Winter or Spring. It is Autumn and already I have drawn a plan for a tiny, manageable plot. The rest can go to weeds and bugs, but I will have my small triumph, my Perfect Parterre, my Vegetable Vision. I am going to put on those gloves. I am going to weed and tidy and water and dig beds. I am going to do it. Tomorrow. Or the next day. For sure.