Apparently, I’ve become a gardener.
I suppose I’d been spending a fair amount of time watering and fussing over the motley collections of pots, tins and other receptacles overtaking the windowsills and the ground below, of looking at videos of how to split out tomato seedlings and plotting how the abandoned flat-bed truck at the back of our parking lot could be turned into more growing space. But it wasn’t until a new neighbour described me as “the one with all the plants”, that I realised that there had been some sort of a step change in activity and aspirations.
I should clarify that I’m only growing food, and not so much of it at that. There are half a dozen herbs, several different kinds of salad leaves, chard and, should everything go to plan, maybe 25 cherry tomato plants. I’m on the lookout for some radish seeds, but I’m resisting the temptation to expand more dramatically. Other than the most prolific herbs, there may not be enough of anything to particularly change buying habits.
Starting last summer, I began spending some time at the local community greenhouse. It’s a remarkable place, all the more so for being in a neighbourhood as urban as Brixton. An astounding variety of food grows there: chilli varieties I’ve never seen before, beds of Asian greens tended to by an industrious woman who speaks very little English, all sorts of pumpkins, and, on a highly experimental basis, grapes and rice. There are fruit trees too, and bee hives. The food is sometimes sold, sometime used in cooking demonstrations and, far too frequently, just left for volunteers to scavenge.
A few hours in the sunshine, getting agreeably dirty, seemed like a fair price for suppers featuring fresh-from-the vine tomatoes, herbs and greens. But once the sun and the tomatoes were both gone, the walk towards the greenhouses became less appealing. I’d not sure exactly when the idea of growing some of my own became fixed, but the plan was put into action on the first warm weekend in March. Compost got hauled home on a bus, and a trowel, some seeds and small plants were purchased. By the evening, I had colonised the outside window sills with empty cans, old yogurt pots and the like, while the pots of tomato seeds were lined up, somewhat more precariously, on the inside ledge.
Six weeks on, and the mint plant is halfway up the wall, with no visible sign of the raids for juleps and raita. Oregano, thyme and rosemary are being used almost daily. For a week or so, the chive’s blossoms, purple and tasting almost like a mild spring onion, made their way into almost everything savoury, from eggs to salads to soups. The chard has survived what appears to be a minor bout with beetminer’s leaf, and the rocket will be adorning Tuesday’s pizza. The tomatoes are all still alive, the prodigy of the bunch nearly a foot tall and bursting out of its small port, the laggards barely an inch high. It’s just possible that come August, we’ll have a glut.
Weeding has proven less time-consuming than expected, watering more so, diagnosis of the strange purple splotches (rust, perhaps?) on the sorrel leaves virtually impossible. There has been a childlike sense of wonder in watching things grow from seed, a sense of anticipation in seeing how the plants have changed from one day to the next, a growing excitement at the possibility of being able to eat it all, and some pride in being just a tiny bit self-sufficient in supplying my kitchen.
Since I began growing them, chives have been figuring much more prominently in our cooking. One particular success was a triple allium pizza, featuring leeks cooked almost to the point of being confited, a smear of wild garlic pesto and, when it came out from under the grill, a scattering of chives and chive blossoms. You can find the recipe for the leeks here (follow the basic method, omitting the mustard and crème fraiche at the end). The pesto was made much like any other: toasted, pounded pine nuts (or almond slivers), combined with a big handful of garlic leaves, parmesan and olive oil.