The poor man’s apothecary

I recently moved into a new house and inherited my very own little garden. You could probably swing a cat around in it, but after a few dizzying revolutions – smashing it repeatedly against the fence, shed and patio door – it would be bit like swinging a porridge-filled sock. Given that I would have to borrow a neighbour’s cat for such an exercise, it didn’t feel like the best way to introduce myself to the neighbourhood.

Still, it’s a small but perfectly formed little garden, which I’ve become a tiny bit obsessed with. I potter around with my secateurs and collapsible garden waste bag, inspecting my plants like a stuffy old colonel casting a monocled eye over a troop of soldiers in dress uniform. I also spent upwards of £90 in a garden centre recently. Aside from suffering the indignity of having to tick the ’40-dead’ age range when filling out the application form for their reward card, it was a very pleasant trip to buy some terracotta pots and a few bags of John Innes No.3. Where once I might have spent that amount of money on a new pair of trainers, now I can just bind empty compost bags to my feet with garden twine. I think I’ve become…a gardener.

When I lived in a flat and didn’t have a garden of my own, I used to think that playing Football Manager for hours on end was the best way to relax. But after damaging two laptops during post-defeat meltdowns I now realise that it wasn’t quite the serene pastime I thought it was. (Accidentally substituting my goalkeeper with a fullback during the Champions League Final against Barcelona didn’t help.) Gardening, on the other hand, genuinely makes me happy and relaxes me. It’s good for what ails me. As the German proverb goes: “The garden is the poor man’s apothecary”.

I’ve never really been into gardening. Up till now the closest I’d got to doing anything meaningful in the garden was over 30 years ago, when my sister and I would regularly dig up my grandad’s vegetable patch to install a ‘pond’. My grandad was a gardener for the local council – and a good one at that – so the fact that he accepted the repeated destruction of his garden with such good grace is testament to what a lovely, kind man he was.

I don’t yet have any children to destroy my garden, but I do have a massive slug problem – both in terms of their size and general numbers. My garden at dusk looks like a vast breeding colony of elephant seals. I originally tried to tackle the issue with beer traps, which involves burying half a plastic bottle in the ground filled with stout. Apparently slugs are attracted to the smell, which sees them glide towards the trap’s mysterious, inky black waters, where they peacefully drown in the dead of night. It’s basically a boozy gastropod version of John Everett Millais’s Ophelia.

My beer traps worked quite well for a couple of weeks until a frog and a shrew became the first collateral damage of my slug war. Struck by remorse, I decided to abandon the beer traps and opted for the shock and awe of slug pellets instead. I didn’t really know what the pellets did to the slugs, but compared to the indiscriminate nature of the beer traps and the slightly sadistic salt option (showering the slugs with a thick coating of osmotic death) it seemed like the best course of action to protect my garden in its infancy.

It turns out the pellets affect the slugs in different ways. While some appear to over-produce masses of slime and become drowsy to the point of being completely incapacitated, I’m fairly certain that some of them have actually exploded. It seems to be the difference between quietly slipping into a drool-sodden eternal sleep, or going up like the Father of all Bombs whilst out for a bite to eat.

With the slug war getting messy, a second front has unexpectedly opened against a hornet that seems intent on moving into the bird house I built a couple of months ago. The hornet is roughly the size of a Folland Gnat, so I’ve been swinging a garden cane at the bird house and shouting whenever it tries to enter. Of course, to my neighbours, who perhaps can’t see the offending hornet as it beats a hasty retreat, I’m just the man next door who wildly swings a cane around, shouting “Fuck off, you twat!” at the bird house. They probably think I’m victimising a terrified family of Blue Tits.

But battling insects and gastropods is a very small part of nurturing my little garden, which I’ve spent a lovely summer working on. I have no real idea what I’m doing, or what I’m planting, but I’m having a perfectly lovely time doing it. And who wouldn’t want to fill their garden with plants that sound like a sexy, late-70s dance troupe (‘Hot Papaya’), or a medical condition that causes rapid growth of thick and impenetrable pubic hair (‘Brush Bush’)? What’s not to love about watching a garden grow?

Will everything I’ve planted survive and thrive? I do hope so. But like May Sarton once said: “A garden is always a series of losses set against a few triumphs, like life itself.”

5 thoughts on “The poor man’s apothecary

  1. I fell a little bit in love with your garden too. It felt very serene and sitting out there laughing and drinking coffee as the sun went down. It has become one of my comfort memories.

    How big were your beer traps that you accidentally killed a shrew?! Couldn’t also help but think that this wasn’t your first accidental frog drowning….


    1. I’m so glad you loved the garden. It’s not much, but it’s ours!

      The beer trap was made from the bottom half of a 1ltr bottle of Schweppes tonic water. And the shrew was tiny, it wasn’t the size of a Labrador or anything!

      And yes, I do remember innocently dumping a load of frogs into granddad’s rain barrel to create an aquatic wonderworld…of death. :o(


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