Country Matters: Happiness is a big bundle of pea-sticks

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The Independent Online
COLLECTING pea-sticks and pulling thistles have been our main preoccupations during the past few days. Pretty mundane activities for Derby week, you may say - and I agree. Yet a good deal of satisfaction can be derived from such lowly tasks.

There are not many subjects in which I claim any degree of expertise, but I do reckon to know a bit about pea-sticks. It is, of course, perfectly possible to arrange for a row of peas to climb up netting slung vertically; but, although netting may look all right in suburban surroundings, it has no place in a country vegetable garden, where - in my view - traditional materials should hold sway.

In the gathering of pea-sticks I find a primeval fulfilment. The hunter goes forth into the woods in search of a particular quarry, and when he finds it, he carries it home, a useful by- product of the forest, which, if he had not gathered it in, would have rotted and gone to waste.

The search for perfect pea- sticks can profitably be begun in early spring, long before vegetables have been planted. The wily gardener will be abroad in March or April, noting where the woodmen have felled trees, and checking their tops for quality.

Connoisseurs agree that only one kind of tree really suits this purpose, and that is beech - for no other species deploys its branches in such advantageous patterns. The ideal tree is a mature beech whose branches fan out at the ends into flat, almost two-dimensional sprays, with lateral twigs evenly spaced and spread. What one does not want, but all too often finds, are branches with masses of twigs growing in clotted bunches. My impression is that the same tree may carry both kinds, the difference resulting from the position which the various branches occupy in the canopy, and the amount of air space they enjoy.

When slovenly foresters fell trees, they haul away the main trunks for the timber merchant and leave the upper reaches in a tangled mass where they crashed down. Yet even more thorough operators, who cut up the tops for firewood, have no use for the thin, outer branches, which are always left on the ground and eventually return to the earth in the form of mulch.

In the making of a pea-stick, another critical factor is timing. If a tree is felled early in the winter, its twigs will have become dead and brittle by the summer. Once they have no spring or strength left in them, once red spores start growing on the bark, they will not do. If, on the other hand, a tree comes down in March or April, its branches will contain so much sap that buds may burst into leaf long after it is dead, half- smothering your peas. What you need, then, are middle- aged twigs, still supple and strong.

Once suitable trees have been identified, a cutting expedition is in order; obviously, it is possible to travel by vehicle, but the purist will go on foot, even if the target is a mile or two away. The only equipment needed is a pair of secateurs or a good pocket knife and a length of stout twine. This last is essential for threading the sticks into a bundle and slinging them over one's shoulder.

Trudging home thus burdened the other day, I fell in with one of our farming neighbours, who was gloomily surveying his sodden silage. The sight of me, smitten - as he thought - by poverty and trying to save a few pence by scrounging sticks out of the wood, perked him up no end. 'Things as bad as that, then, are they?' he said cheerfully. I played up and retorted that the price of nylon netting is something wicked these days. But I think he knows as well as I do that I derive no mean pleasure from doing some things in a deliberately old-fashioned way.

As for pea-sticks, so for bean- poles. Beans will climb bamboo perfectly well, but to me bamboo is suburban. Better by far good straight hazel stems, which will last for several seasons if stored in a dry place during the winter. Unlike pea- sticks, which are essentially waste material, bean-poles must be cut from living shrubs, so one should obtain permission from the landowner before taking any; but the getting of them is another satisfying activity, for it is an echo of the ancient system of coppicing, whereby hazel was regularly culled as a crop. Today almost all the hazel I know is neglected and overgrown, so that if I do hack off a few young stems, I feel I am doing the wood a service.

My vegetables are now beginning to climb their natural supports, fuelled by the downpours of May; but weeds are growing almost as fast, and none more vigorously than thistles, both in the garden and in the fields. Last year our grassland was almost clear of them. Then, at midsummer, clouds of thistle- down came wafting over our boundaries from east and west. We saw that this meant trouble - and now we have got it, in the form of a major infestation.

In theory, there are various counter-measures we could take, but all have snags. Spraying with poison would be expensive, and dangerous for our bees, and anyway cannot be done if there is stock in the field. Topping with a tractor would be possible on the flatter ground, but all that decapitation seems to achieve is to drive thistles back in on themselves, so that they grow up thicker and stronger. Easily the most effective answer is to pull them up by hand, for when the ground is really soft, as now, the whole root comes clean out of the ground, so that the plant cannot grow again.

Here we are, then, wearing thick gloves and creeping about our fields bent double, in a full reversion to a peasant economy. Thistle-pulling may not present any acute intellectual challenge, but it does demand patience and stamina. One can easily become daunted by the sheer extent of the task, especially when one reaches a bad patch, with 15 or 20 thistles growing in a single square yard.

It is hard to stop one's mind making doom-laden computations. Twenty to a square yard; 4,840 square yards to the acre: at that rate, nearly 100,000 thistles to the acre, or half a million in this paddock alone. God's boots] That would mean a lifetime's servitude. But, of course, there are not 20 in every square yard: large patches of the field are clear.

Soon one becomes expert at separating each thistle from the surrounding grass, gripping its stem just above the ground, and easing it up so that six inches of white, wriggly root, like that of an embryonic parsnip, come clear. I alternate between stooping, which gets one in the back, and crawling, which is all right until one kneels on a thistle or in a cowpat.

As boredom builds up, I begin to think savagely of retributive measures. I am pretty sure that the Weed Act (1959) lists field thistles as one of its 'injurious' species, along with ragwort and docks. In theory, I could let loose the dreaded MAFF on my neighbours, and force them to tackle the thistles on their own ground. Yet would that really achieve anything, except to stir up local animosities?

After a while I find a second wind and settle down, so that the whole exercise becomes deeply therapeutic, especially when conducted to a background of commentary from Old Trafford, and I begin to believe that it is not weeds, but Australian batsmen, that I am winking out.