“Now that we spend so much time at home…” – was the only acknowledgement of the current situation in the second episode of 2020 Gardeners’ World last week. Indeed, what more can we possibly say? Who could have thought this was possible? Who could have thought there could be so much time for stay-home gardening this year? Spring is marching ahead, unaware of our predicament, no one has informed her of the world pandemic. And so, the seeds must go into the ground.
This year on the allotment, we wanted to be more deliberate with our planting. Last year’s tomato extravaganza, albeit instructive and memorable, was quite stressful and left little space, physically or emotionally, for anything else. This year, tomatoes were still going to feature prominently in our vegetable garden, of course, I just needed to remember to use waterproof markers and allow for 95% germination-to-maturity rate. But somehow, in these last few weeks, I just could not stop sowing seeds. Mostly, tomato seeds.
I sow two oxheart varieties and Malinowy Ozarowsky, a raspberry-pink (“malina” means raspberry), meaty, sweet-flavoured and scalloped in appearance, a gift from a Polish friend. I sow Black Russian, my last year’s hero, dark and dense-textured, like the infamous Slavic soul. I sow Golden Queen, a sweet medium-size variety known as “the queen of all yellows”. Also, Yellow Pear, a cherry variety, the ones that were so incredibly prolific last year and just a joy to look at, yet alone snack on. My Italian allotment neighbour looks at them with scorn and calls them mushrooms. He does not like my Black Russians either, I understand they spoiled the immaculate redness of his salsa di pomodoro. He is unlikely to look after them in the greenhouse if we do go away in the summer, so they will need to go into the open ground and hope for the best. Then again, it is very possible that, a bizarre thought only a month ago, no one is going anywhere this summer.
So, I end up with 25 strong seedlings on my windowsill at home, one third of last year’s, an exercise in restraint. Then, inspecting the greenhouse last week, I find a small forest of tomato seedlings where the last year’s fruit must have fallen. I will have to plant them on. This year, even more than usual, I am compelled to give living things a chance. So young and so tender, they already leave a strong green smell of early summer on my fingers. I will have more than 75 plants and no idea which is which variety. The situation is completely identical to April 2019. I must find solace in what seems to be the birth of a tradition.
There has been much sowing of other vegetables, too. Beetroot is obligatory for our family and we have planned more space for it on the allotment. Even then, I sow way too much. My daughter remarks that a beetroot seed look like a caricature of corona virus. Last year we would not have known the words. Then again, until this week I would have not understood the expression “if you can garden safely”.
We are trying out a couple of new things, too, like bell peppers and chili peppers, and jalapenos. I thought I might pass on the beans, as I found my last year’s harvest a bit too paltry and fiddly. Perhaps that was because we had our hands full with the tomatoes. (Quite right, just blame the tomatoes for anything that didn’t quite work last year!). But the sumptuous-looking Wonder of Venice won me over. Ok, just that one then. I will make “sparzha”, a dish of wide flat yellow runner beans blanched slightly and fried in butter and breadcrumbs. We used to make it almost every summer day when I was small. They say you need to return to your roots in times like this. Taste and smell, the quickest road to one’s childhood.
We then sow two varieties of corn, which I banned last year on the grounds of its being too “rough-country” and a space waster. This year, it feels different. The beans will go in-between corn stakes, and we will plant marrows around the edges – the Three Sisters Method, a new discovery. We are also finally giving in to sunflowers. And there will be lots of cornflowers in those two beds. A Ukrainian landscape in miniature.
And so, a seed at a time, we go through the quarantine. Never did sowing feel so compulsive or so therapeutic, or more life-affirming. Never did I have so much time for it.