Turning the Soil

This week, I have mostly been taming my garden.


‘Is that a euphenism?’ my friend Becky asks.

But no. My muff is unchanged. I am actually outside with a spade, attacking our steep bank of weeds.

And I am enjoying it. I can see why gardeners garden. Gardening is a ‘job’ and can therefore be indulged in without feeling guilty. And yet it is outside; it is physical; it is another of those ‘non-verbal’ situations. I turn over the soil; my mind turns soil of its own.

Dandilions. Toddler likes dandilions. They’re bright; they’re yellow; they make nice furry seeds you can blow on. They are also stubborn, with their fat, hairy roots that dig down, down, down to tangle with some obsticle (a concrete slab; a tree-root). Thus when you come to dig them out, a little bit always manages to break off and stay behind to plot regrowth.

My Mum once told me that even the tiniest bit of root left behind can grow back to make a new plant. Is this even true? If so, it is a metaphor for antibiotic resistance. People take antibiotics until nearly all of the bacteria are zapped. But if one, wiley bacterium remains, curled up in an inaccessible bit of body somehwere, as soon as you stop the antibiotics it will start to multiply…. and if your immune system can’t finish the job, you risk a body full of bacteria again but this time all descended from the strongest, wiliest of the bacteria that were in the body to start with. In short, an even worse infection.
This is why it’s important to finish courses of antibiotics, folks, even after you are better. This is why us vets shouldn’t be reaching for the most effective super-drug on our shelves FIRST, because if we make bugs resistant to that, what do we reach for next? This is why we shouldn’t be using antibiotics at all, unless we know that an infection is really present. And that it isn’t the sort of infection that the animal will just shrug and fight off effortlessly on its own.

But anyway. Antibitoics are for fighting infection. Infection is bad. Dandilions…. are they really bad? Really? Why am I doing this? Surely it’s only by accident and social convention that we prefer roses and suchlike to dandilions in the first place? If I stuck fertiliser down and encouraged the dandilions, Toddler – who has no such preconceptions – would probably be delighted. So why should I plant anything else? Why am I wasting hours trying to dig every last dandilion stamding, when I know that another will blow in on the wind?

What about real gardeners (that is, people who actually garden, not just people like me who have a garden and dabble)?  Don’t they realise that when they get too old, like the people who had my garden before me, the dandilions will be back again? That some people with small kids will move into their house and cut down the rose bushes to make way for a lawn? That the bank will be ignored until all that is left of their beautiful garden will be a party of dandilions and a big cotoniaster bush so choken in bindweed that you can hardly see the berries by winter? That eventually, the new people will saw it down?

I felt bad about sawing down the cotoniaster. I felt as though I was playing god, killing the poor bush because it was inconvenient. We rarely euthanase animals purely for convenience. Why a plant? We definatly know that plants don’t have a neural system, right? I didn’t hurt it with my saw?

If that doesn’t make me a softy enough, you should see me after slicing a worm in half with a spade. I find myself kneeling down, prodding the halves. Trying to make them wriggle so I know I’m not a murderer. Or manslaughterer. Or wormslaughterer. What’s become of my pragmatic self?

Gardening, I am finding out, is not for softies. Despite the jolly, wholesome exterior, a real gardener wouldn’t pretend not to notice a snail. A real gardener would stamp on it.  Or – like my grandmother used to do to slugs – sprinkle it with salt and watch it shrivel.

Talking of my Grandmother, if real gardeners work as hard as I’ve been doing for all their gardening lives, they must be signing up to an old age of chronic artthritis and pain. Sure, gardening is exercise.  But it’s an unhealthy sort of exercise that trashes your body. Never before has my back felt so bad. Sport can be bad for your body too, but gardening must be on a par with the really crippling sports, like intensive childhood gymnastics in China or long-distance road-running.

Anyway: it’s nearly done. The soil is dug and the weeds are gone.  Soil has been carted around to rebuilt the bank. Black plastic is going down to prevent further life from colonising it and I will plant some bushes and ‘carpet plants’ on top of that.

Like any wiley Mother though, I have also bought some sunflowers for the Toddler, in a hope she doesn’t ask me where the dandilion plants have gone.


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