He had an eye for Catriona, too

Anna Pavord dedicates her prize-winning potatoes to the late George Pay ne, but confesses they were a bit of a fluke
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The Independent Online
Boasting, I know, is a deeply unattractive trait, but I do not think I can sit on my news any longer. It is boast or bust. Are you ready to hear about the seminal event of 1994? I won first prize for my potatoes at the Melplash Agricultural Show.

There! Now it is out, you will understand what an awesome secret this has been to keep. What honours are there left in life now that I have scooped the big one?

I did it because of George Payne, a Dorset shepherd who has been a hero of mine since we first met at the Melplash show six years ago. He regularly hauled in prizes by the shovelful: fuchsias, begonias, gladioli, zinnias, potatoes, leeks, parsnips, beans. His star turn was the Collection, the toughest class for any exhibitor. You have to display six different kinds of vegetables - several of each - all at the peak of perfection. Mr Payne used to set his up against a backdrop of sumptuous black velvet. I t was a shrine, mesmerisingly superb.

When he wasn't too busy he would sometimes come over to offer advice on the vegetable garden. He would bring a few cabbage plants, organise a load of well-rotted muck, and generally cast his eye about the plot. For me, it was like being visited by the Queen. Better, actually.

He died just over a year ago, not long after his 70th birthday, and had a grand funeral in a packed church. Medals clanked stiffly on the chests of the commandos who had been with him in the war. His coffin was draped with the Union Jack and a bugler played the Last Post. The vicar announced that after the service there would be a grand booze-up in the village pub. Mr Payne was a stalwart drinker.

So it was a kind of homage that took me to the Melplash show this year, my first as an exhibitor, with a clutch of `Catriona' potatoes in a basket. Mr Payne was very keen on `Catriona', a long, oval, second early variety with purple eyes marked on a smooth white skin.

It is an old potato. It was around before Mr Payne was born and has always been popular with showmen. In our neck of the woods it is a useful potato because the haulm dies down early and so does not get blighted as readily as other varieties. "'Tis a bugger, that blight," Mr Payne would observe as he stood in our garden, cap stuck magically to the back of his head, looking at the wreckage of `Pink Fir Apple' or `Epicure' or whatever other fancy potato I had taken it in mind to grow.

The subtext was clear. I had only myself to blame. If I had stuck to the tried and tested, Payne-recommended varieties, I wouldn't be in this pickle now. Conversation with countrymen of the old school is always oblique. With Mr Payne it could become positively Byzantine.

The ironic thing about those prize-winning `Catriona' potatoes is that they were what my mother called "moochers", potatoes that got left behind in the ground when I was digging the main crop. They started themselves into growth in the spring, but were never earthed up. Instead, they got covered rather thickly with grass cuttings.

This kept the ground underneath moist during the hot spell last summer. It also made lifting incredibly easy. I scarcely had to dig, merely scrape away the 6in layer of grass. There were the potatoes, sitting like a nest of goose eggs, clean and gleaming. Having by accident discovered this labour-saving way of growing, I am going to try the method again this season. There must be a catch somewhere.

What else happened this year? I finally got round to replanting a stone trough that had been my father's. Since it came to us, we have been thinking where to put it. Finally we decided to leave it just where we had unloaded it. We had got used to it being there and, unusually in this garden, the spot was not overshadowed by trees.

Originally, the trough had been a cream separator. It is about 3ft long by 1ft wide and is hollowed out into two separate chambers. These are divided by a solid stone barrier with a hole in it near the top. When the milk settled in one chamber, you pulled the bung out of the hole and the cream trickled from the top of the milk into the separate chamber.

First I had to empty the trough, which was filled with the red earth of my home in the Welsh border country. At the bottom went a thick layer of crocks, then loam-based compost mixed with extra grit. When the trough was half full, the plants danced around on top of the compost until they seemed to be in the right places. Once they were in position, they were filled around with more compost and top-dressed with gravel.

Doll's-house gardening of this kind makes you more pernicketty than you might otherwise be. A fallen leaf on a trough looms as large as a blanket on a border. You expect a great deal from each plant, too. There is no room for slackers in a layout that isbarely three square feet.

Euryops acraeus, a hummocky shrublet with handsome silvery foliage, is the centrepiece of the right-hand side of the trough. Mine has not flowered yet, but I have seen it in bloom with bright-yellow daisy flowers about an inch wide during May and June.

With it is Scabiosa alpina, also greyish in leaf, but a mat rather than a hummock and flowering in summer with neat lavender scabious flowers. In each of the compartments, there is a pink. Dianthus alpinus, a neat prostrate plant, is on the right with narrow green leaves topped by brilliant rose crimson flowers. `La Bourboule Albus', too vigorous for this position as it turns out, is on the left. Both smell fantastic.

The erodium, or stork's bill, is very like the herbaceous geranium, but shrunk. You get the same combination of pleasing, crinkled foliage with a long succession of whiteish, pink-veined flowers, but the whole thing is only 2in high. Mine is E reichardii`Album' and it is still in full leaf. It must think it is in its native Majorca.

Next to it is a dwarf phlox, P douglasii `Eva' which has small, round, pink flowers. Varieties of P douglasii are less vigorous and spreading than those of the moss phlox, P subulata. In a restricted space, this is an advantage. Like the pinks, the phloxwill spill over the edge of a container, which gives a pleasantly laid-back feel.

Saxifrage, thyme and sempervivum provided most of the rest of the trough's furnishings. These are standards of any alpine planting and, provided the excessively tricky ones that demand cover and daily attention with tweezers are avoided, any saxifrage you choose will give you pleasure. I chose S paniculata brevifolia - the smaller the plant, the longer the name.

Many sempervivums, I am ashamed to say, I can't tell apart, but the solid round starfish shapes are an excellent foil to the mossy, fine foliage of other alpines. I had to have them in the trough because they were a speciality of my father's and,all through my childhood, I remember them spilling out of it in their fat, spiky way.