We'll take a cup of compost yet...

Anna Pavord reviews the past year's triumphs and failings in the garden and makes plans for next year's new growth
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The Independent Online
There is a terrible compulsion at the end of the year to take stock of things: to start counting jars of chutney in the larder, pillowcases in the airing cupboard, leaks in the roof. It is a process that includes the garden. As the counting of the little triumphs and the rather more memorable disasters proceeds, you have to keep your fingers crossed that you are going to come out in credit. I think I might just have broken even if it hadn't been for the wall.

The kitchen garden is bounded by stone walls about 18 inches thick and eight or nine feet high. In a foul weekend of westerly gales, storms and hail a 30-foot section of the west wall came crashing down on the border, crushing the fan-trained pears that had been spreadeagled against it. I mind the pears more than the wall. When everything else in the garden threatened to gallop away out of control, I used to go and look at the pears, symbols of order lined out textbook fashion against their long bamboo canes.

The old mason who has kept our place more or less stuck together since we have been here has died, so strange builders have been coming to look at the wall. There has been much sucking of teeth. "What you want there is a nice bit of breezeblock," said the first. The second talked about using his band saw to cut up all the big stones, "Give them a nice flat face. Make them easier to handle. You'll have a nice lot of stone left over." He wanted the spare stone to do a repair job in the neighbouring village. The third one talked encouragingly about lime mortar, which is what Paddy, our old mason, used to use, but his finger seemed to have slipped writing the quote. It was enough to build a granny annexe, let alone a garden wall.

So, the gaping hole is still there and, unfortunately, there is no way I can avoid seeing it as I go down to pull leeks and collect Brussels sprouts.

It was one of the best years ever for crops. The freezer, bulging with tomatoes, bears testimony to that. The star of the five different outdoor varieties I grew was "Dario" (Marshalls, pounds 1.77). Having grown smallish tomatoes such as "Red Alert" and "Tornado" for some time, it was a treat to have these big, round fruits, each at least a quarter of a pound in weight.

Marshalls talk of it as a bush tomato, but because of our slug problem, I grew some of the "Dario" plants up canes, pinching out side shoots, and they still cropped well. As frosts came so late, we were still picking them at the end of November. "St Pierre" (Marshalls 99p) looks similar - one to try this year.

You can sow any time during March and April. If you are growing outside, though, you can't put out plants until the end of May, so there is no benefit in sowing too early. Sowing around the end of March works for me in the south, but mid-April may be wiser in the north. I sow seed in a five inch pot, water it, cover it with clingfilm and leave it on the kitchen window sill to germinate.

When the seedlings are established, prick them out into three inch pots, one plant to a pot, and grow them on in these until it is time to transplant them outside. Timing that last shift is the only tricky thing about growing tomatoes. You want them hardened off and planted out as soon as you can, so that cropping will start early. The earliest date I have picked outdoor tomatoes is 4 July. That was the bush variety "Tumbler". Cold nights in late spring, though, will turn leaves blue and check growth.

The most dramatic happening of the year was the invitation to a neighbour's house in early summer to watch the opening of the buds on her night-flowering cactus, Epiphyllum oxypetalum. The plant itself is an untidy looking thing, standing about five feet high in a pot, with stems flattened out to look like leaves. It is a cactus, but one that likes wet rather than dry. Its native habitat is Central America, where it is an epiphyte, scrambling around in tropical forests.

The buds hang down on long fleshy stems from the flattened leaf-stems. The outside is stained pink, and fleshy bud scales make each one look like some tropical insect rather than a flower. Round about eight o'clock at night, the buds begin to stir and the whole process of them opening is like watching a speeded up nature film. You can hear the petals cracking out from the tightly folded bud parcels. The flower opens a pure, mesmerising white with a complicated centre of creamy stamens and a predatory looking stigma.

The flower, fully-opened (it looks good after half an hour, but is not fully shaken out for about an hour) is at least six inches across, a mass of thin spidery outer petals which widen as they approach the centre of the bloom. It is outrageously wanton and smells so sweet, you could get drunk on that alone. The smell is there for whatever moth pollinates it in its Central American home. By morning, the flower has crumpled and hangs like a wet dishcloth. With luck another will take its place.

Now, if this were an ordinary garden plant, you would be asking yourself, "Why keep a bundle of scraggy stems for 51 weeks of the year in order to get flowers for the remaining one?" And you would be right. But this is such an extraordinary spectacle, reason goes out of the window.

From my neighbour I got a leaf cutting which, having rooted, is now growing strongly with nine fresh stem-leaves growing from it. The fronds are much the size and shape of our native hart's tongue fern. Epiphyllums need to be in a place where the winter temperature does not drop below 5C. Being epiphytes, they do not need full sun. An east or west facing window would suit them. Mine is in a six inch pot (though it might well move to a bigger one in spring) and gets occasional liquid feeds during spring and summer. In winter it likes a dryish rest, though should not be allowed to dry out completely.

My neighbour propagates from side shoots. You need to leave these to dry off at the bottom for a day or two before you pot up the cutting in compost.

Gardeners, though, tend to look forward rather than back. The sight of "Soleil d'Or" narcissus buds already six inches high in the rough grass is very cheering. So are the great curtains of yellow jasmine catching in the postman's hair at the back door. He's new on the round and hasn't learned yet to make the slight bob and swerve to avoid it. "You could cut it back," said my husband when the jasmine took my hat off on a dark night. Now there's a radical thought with which to start off the New Year.

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