Tom Hodgkinson: 'After two years of neglect, I've remembered how therapeutic gardening can be'

 

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May is the most magical month. It certainly feels that way down here on the farm in Devon, the emergence of the sun being very welcome indeed. It has been a hard winter for smaller local farmers. One lost 80 sheep and lambs to the cold. Nothing grew. The fields went brown.

But, with the sun out, wild plants are growing with amazing speed. We are drowning in allium ursinum, also known as wild garlic, and allium triquetrum, or "three-cornered leek". You can smell their deliciousness in the air. The leaves of the wild garlic can be wrapped around goat's cheese for a satisfying starter. Three-cornered leek has a pretty white flower and you can chop the onion-tasting leaves into a salad.

On the moors the yellow gorse has gone crazy and as you walk past it you can smell the flowers' coconutty aroma. Apparently you can make gorse wine from them, though we haven't tried that. On a walk yesterday I noticed that the whortleberries are going to do well this year. This is a kind of small blueberry that miraculously thrives on the windswept cliffs of Exmoor. They should be ready to harvest in a couple of months: our own local free superfood.

The primroses are still out in force and the bluebells are enjoying themselves. Red campion has started to appear and there are dog violets everywhere. We have also seen lots of wood sorrel, which has a gorgeous bell-shaped white flower. Deeper into the woods, and little blue speedwell flowers have come out. And there seem to be lots of foxgloves, although these have not flowered yet.

On viewing my semi-neglected vegetable patch, a friend quipped: "The nettles are doing very well." Well, you may scoff, friend, but nettles are fantastic food. Victoria made a nettle risotto the other night based on a recipe from Rowley Leigh.

But after two years of neglect I have started working again on the vegetable patch. I sowed about 80 broad-bean seeds and planted 12 red-cabbage plants which I bought from the nursery. I also sowed a bed of rocket. As I dug the ground to prepare for these plantings, I kept digging up potatoes, which had been happily growing secretly despite my total abandonment. And as I harried the weeds, I found myself filling with joy. I had forgotten what it felt like to be happy, and I remembered just how therapeutic gardening can be.

Unfortunately, the cats like my veg patch as well. They seem particularly to enjoy rolling around on earth just sowed with seeds. I erected a complex system of wires around the cabbages to stop the cats doing this, but they found a gap, squeezed through it and lay down right across the cabbage plants.

I took my rediscovered enthusiasm for gardening to our little front garden. I mowed the lawn with a £30 hand-mower. It is a brilliant machine: no need for oil or electricity, and it does a great job, as long as you mow fairly frequently. Then I waged war on the dandelions. Yes, I know people say you can eat the young leaves in salads but I have always found them unpalatable. The flower is unremarkable and those ball-shaped seed-heads ruin a lawn. So I have decided to eradicate all trace of it from the garden. This is not an easy task: the dandelion gets everywhere – it sprouts between paving stones and sends horrible long roots into the ground. I'm afraid that I have started fantasising about using weedkiller. This thought makes me feel guilty as I am a committed organic gardener.

We have also bought four pretty hens and a splendid Cochin cockerel. Fowl husbandry is another area of smallholding life we had neglected. Keeping chickens is enormous fun, not much work – and they save you a fortune on eggs…

Tom Hodgkinson is editor of 'The Idler'. Tom and his wife Victoria are holding a Foraging and Philosophy Weekend in Exmoor from 28 to 30 June. For further details: idler.co.uk

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