Urban gardener: Strictly roots

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The Independent Online

There's something wholesome and good about sharing Christmas lunch knowing that everything is organic and freshly picked that morning. So, as you tuck into your festive fodder, spare a thought for those of us who will actually have to buy our vegetables this year. Yes, for the first time in seven years we will not be self-sufficient and, while it's hardly a crime to be seen sheepishly unloading shopping bags of bought produce, our crates of home-grown produce, artfully (and yes, smugly) arranged to maximise the satisfaction of picking such a bounteous mix at Yuletide, will be sorely missed. It's not a complete disaster. Sprouts and cabbage have saved our complete embarrassment but roots have been a complete non-starter.

Time away from the plot, a wet summer and an army of slugs that you'd only expect to see in a cheap horror film put paid to most of our efforts. Carrots stood no chance and even beetroot struggled this year. Potatoes should have fared better but our main crop was chewed to the nub every time a leaf poked its head above the parapet. We might be able to use some young scorzonera that have seeded themselves all over the plot, but there's a danger it could just end up resembling a Ray Mears' Christmas Survival Special.

I should accept defeat and look forward to some time over the break to prepare for the coming season, except that the situation has been exacerbated by my secret fascination (not quite a fetish yet, but close) with roots, probably stemming from a brief flirtation with fossils as a child. Obviously, digging up a knobbly parsnip doesn't quite have the pulling power of, say, an 80 million-year-old mollusc, but there is a very simple, palaeontological enchantment knowing that you are the first person ever to see that particular parsnip. You might think this is the result of working too many hours in an office, but these thoughts that began some three years ago eventually led to "Mutant Roots", a series of surreal botanical suppositions as to what might be beneath the ground waiting to be discovered. Stripy beetroot for example, square potatoes (easier for packing) with leopard-skin markings, and screw-shaped carrots (easier to pick if you turn them anti-clockwise). A root shaped like an anchor was one of my favourites never discovered because its barbed, anchor-shape prevents it from being pulled up in one piece. It makes you wonder (or me anyway) if there might be something quite yummy at the end of bindweed roots: it's just that no one has bothered to dig deep enough.

Over the past few years they have made useful presents and last Christmas, to make up for many years of being absolutely rubbish at sending greetings cards, copies were made of the stripy beetroot (which conveniently looks like a Christmas bauble) and printed on to thin card in order to double as a book marker. A great success, except it thoroughly annoyed those who had finally crossed me off their card list only to find that not only had I sent a card, but I'd taken the trouble to make it myself. The temptation is to print the full range of roots on card so they can be used as baubles on this year's tree. But we've decided to dispense with the Norwegian Spruce this season and be creative with a large tangled ball of Maidenhair Vine (Muehlenbeckia complexa almost certainly the inspiration behind Russell Brand's bouffant) that has engulfed a dead tree, a bird-feeding station and has obvious designs on our shed.

We'll probably do this over the weekend so that the leaves maintain an element of freshness and colour. Unfortunately this will be too late to embellish today's column, so as consolation, here's last year's beetroot-cum-bauble. It may represent a deluded aspiration to fuse the world of horticulture, palaeontology and festive fun, but if it keeps me from descending into a re-incarnation of the Dickensian Yuletide fossil, the children at least will stand half a chance of having a very merry Christmas.

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