March is with us and a countryman's thoughts turn to his vegetable patch. There is a lovely old medieval poem which assigns a certain outdoor task to each month, and the line for March is: "Here I sette my thynge to sprynge," which means, "Now I sow my seeds." For the full jaunty early-English effect, by the way, make sure you pronounce the final "e" in "sette", "thynge" and "sprynge".
Well, I'm afraid to report that I have not yet set one single thynge to sprynge in my vegetable patch. In fact, the garden is looking woefully unkempt, as it has not felt the cleave of iron since before Christmas, when I dug up a few parsnips. It weighs over me heavily, this neglected corner of north Devon, and my remorse is made worse every other week when I travel by train to London and stare at the beautifully kept railside allotments around Bristol, Swindon and Reading.
The problem is that the longer I leave the vegetable patch, the worse it gets, and the more I dread tackling it. I'm caught in a vicious circle of laziness, procrastination and ever-spreading weeds. This is just the sort of trap warned against by Virgil in his great gardening poem "The Georgics", where he writes: "Unless you harry the weeds with unrelenting mattock... alas too late you will eye your neighbour's ample store."
But there always seems to be some excuse for neglect. Generally it is the weather. "I'll go and sort it out when the weather improves," I will say. Well, today I look out of my study window and the weather does seem to be improving. But then today I've loads of work to get done. Added to which, it is important for my mental health to take a nap. So maybe I'll postpone the digging and weeding and sowing until tomorrow.
One trick that can work is to be under-ambitious. In the past I have said to myself: "I'll just go up there and do 20 minutes with the fork and spade." Inevitably, I will end up doing more than 20 minutes. But if I tell myself: "Right, I'll do a whole day and really get it sorted out," then I do absolutely nothing.
They say it is better to do a little a day, where gardening is concerned, than a lot occasionally. To do half-an-hour a day would be far more productive, pleasurable and efficient than to put in four hours on a Sunday, or, worse, eight hours every other Sunday. The problem is that this way of working is diametrically opposed to my natural inclination. The Idler magazine was inspired by an essay by Dr Johnson where he confessed that his working method was to do absolutely nothing for long periods and then to write his piece at great speed seconds from the deadline. Then he would go to the pub.
As this was exactly how I worked, I decided that it clearly was not an evil way of doing things, nor an unproductive one, and therefore I would celebrate the idea of paroxysms of diligence interspersed with long loafing sessions.
Well, this is all right for journalism, but not for gardening, which demands regular habits, or indeed retail – in which I also dabble – which demands long hours. Clearly I need to start a new magazine called The Toiler to reflect my changing situation. The other point to make about a garden is that I had always supposed it to be an Edenic retreat and not the cause of toil and anxiety. Thankfully, though, this dream is to become a reality at the Idler Academy.
As part of the new Chelsea Fringe, a brilliant gardener named Angela Newman is going to give our little London grove a medieval makeover. The Idler's Grove, as it will be called, is based on the "herber", the kind of small enclosed garden to which someone such as Eleanor of Aquitaine would retire to discuss love with a couple of randy troubadours. Our grove will feature bench-seating and sweet-smelling herbs and will be up and running in May.
And this time I have worked things out well: someone else is going to do all the work, while I merely direct matters from a distance, and then enjoy the fruits – literally, as we have a vine in the garden.
When at home, though, I shall revert to the peasant's life and till my own patch. For while William Morris may have been exaggerating somewhat when he said that "there are few men... who would not wish to spend part of their lives in the most necessary and pleasant of all work, cultivating the earth", the satisfaction of eating one's own produce is immense and should not be forgotten.
Tom Hodgkinson is editor of 'The Idler'
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