Curly-leaved parsley may not have the best flavour, but it gives the prettiest effect
I have been working up in the Highlands for three weeks: no phone, no telly, no internet. I didn't miss any of those, since they don't play much part in life at home either. But, after the first 10 days, I did begin to miss the garden. The cottage I use in Wester Ross is miles up a track, with a marshy meadow on one side. Then mountains, fore and aft and, at night, stags roaring all round. On the deer fence, a wisp of honeysuckle clings grimly to the wire. Someone must once have got a crop of potatoes off this ground. And turnips. But now, just grass.
The great advantage of having a bit of garden to fiddle with is the cast-iron excuse it gives you not to do whatever tedious task you are supposed to be doing. And you can persuade yourself that the fiddling is not time wasted, but a small gain made. If you actually like gardening, rather than just wanting to have a garden, then you don't feel oppressed by the never-ending list of things to be done. Doing them is the point of the whole thing. At home, most of gardening is made up of small jobs – things you fit in during a spare half hour. Allotments have to be viewed differently. Often they are too far from base to be able to pop out and prop up beans or pull a few weeds. You have to psych yourself up for a proper onslaught. That requires a different attitude. And more planning.
What I missed was being able to make those small interventions that, taken all together, are important: wandering into our small gravelled yard to twine a stray shoot of cobaea into the trellis it's supposed to cover (sown on 28 April, it is finally flowering, with stiff, squareish, purple bells surrounded by a ruff of pale green); pulling weeds as I go up the path to admire a new hydrangea, with white florets that pile up inside each other like a stack of ice-cream cones; standing by the front door snipping dead heads from the pale yellow Argyranthemum 'Jamaica Primrose' which has been flowering flat-out since mid-May. The world (my world, I mean) is not going to stop if those things don't get done, but the results are pleasurable. You feel the scene has been ever so slightly improved by your intervention.
Jobs of this kind engage your brain, of course, but not in a worrying way. That's one of the great reasons to garden. It calms the mind. But while you are deadheading 'Jamaica Primrose', you are perhaps thinking whether you'll grow it again next year in the pots by the door. In which case you'll need to take cuttings before the first frosts arrive. That's an easy job. Argyranthemums are very prolific and all along the main stems, you'll find new shoots breaking out, bright green, leafy. Probably there'll already be a small, tight flower bud on top of the shoot.
Tear some of these cuttings away, pulling downwards, and choosing, if you can, shoots that don't yet have flower buds. Typically, they will be about 7cm/3in long. Strip off the lower leaves and then poke the cuttings, six or seven to a 13cm/5in pot of compost. Water the pot and keep it somewhere light and cool, but free from frost. A porch would be fine. Or a windowsill, but not one directly above a radiator. Within 10 days, you may see the first roots poking in an exploratory way out of the bottom of the pot. It really is that simple. You don't need a propagator, or hormone rooting powder, or capillary matting.
Taking cuttings of these tender perennials (argyranthemum is a native of Madeira and the Canary Islands) is a job that a gardening book might tell you to do in September. But the seasons have been late this year and we still have not had the kind of frost that might kill a tender perennial before we've had a chance to propagate it. The advantage of leaving the job as late as you can is that the cuttings won't be hanging around in pots longer than they need. That's another thing that gardening teaches you. Sniff the wind. Go with the flow. Move with the seasons, not by a calendar.
If I'd been at home I'd have been snipping at the flower heads on the parsley, too. By nature, in its second season, parsley wants to stop producing green leaf and instead send up flat, greenish-white heads of flower. Once it has seeded, it is programmed to die. But if you keep taking away the flower stems, you can persuade the parsley to go on leafing. At least for a while. I grow parsley outside in a black plastic pot just by the door, where I can snip it quickly for cooking, even if it is pouring with rain. The bigger the pot, the better the parsley will grow and the pots I generally use for herbs are 28cm/11in across.
You have two windows for sowing parsley, March to April or July to August. The pot that I'm still using was sown in August last year ('Lisette' from Thompson & Morgan, £1.99). I chose it because the blurb said it was ideal for growing in a pot, and that it stood a long time without bolting. It has.
The flat-leaved types of parsley are said to have the best flavour, but the curly-leaved ones like 'Lisette' give a prettier effect. I sowed seed direct into the pot of compost, scattering it as thinly as I could. It is slow to germinate. Soaking the seed for 24 hours before sowing sometimes helps.
In August this year, I sowed another pot of seed, to take over from the existing one. But I forgot to cover it and a blackbird, rootling about in the compost, put paid to the baby seedlings. It's too late to sow again, but I'm wondering whether a pot of parsley, bought from the supermarket and transplanted into a bigger pot, might survive and thrive. Unlike so many other herbs, parsley doesn't need sun, so you can keep a pot on an overhung balcony, or in a north-facing windowbox. But whatever you are growing, the bigger the pot, the easier it will be to keep, because the conditions inside the pot are more stable. The compost inside a big pot doesn't dry out as fast and it doesn't heat up or cool down at the rate a smaller pot does.
Cooling down is the issue now. After three unprecedented weeks of sunshine in the Highlands, with clear nights and a touch of frost, I returned down the motorway to torrential rain and wild, wild winds at home. It's time to batten down the hatches. And dream of snowdrop.
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