The purest of pleasures

‘God Almighty first planted a garden,’ wrote Francis Bacon, ‘and indeed it is the purest of human pleasures.’ Well, he should have known, but the general business of gardening is a pleasure I have come to late, even though I have the right hereditary input, being descended from farmers and passionate planters and turners of soil: perhaps this particular creative gene comes into its full strength late-ish in life. In any case, I was halfway through my allotted span of three score and ten when I migrated somewhat unexpectedly to Greece, and it was then that the dormant gardening gene staggered out of hibernation: in my neck of fertile olive groves in the south-west Peloponnese, it is usually a case of sticking plants in the ground and standing back. But in this part of Europe, scarcity of both soil and space also leads to a continuous tension between the desire for productivity and the desire for beauty, the desire for economy and the desire for ornament, so I was always in trouble with the old yiayathes, the old women who would prop themselves against the stone wall with the express purpose of telling me that I had no right to be wasting precious water on things as frivolous as flowers.

Summer

Graeme from Norwich is on the phone.
‘How’s Greece?’ he asks.
‘Hot.’
‘Anything else to report?’
‘I’ve started a vegetable garden.’ And already I’m asking myself why, but I don’t tell Graeme this.


‘Well, that’s worth a chapter.’

But when I impart the same information to a Scot, she emits a hollow moan. ‘Don’t get like them,’ she instructs, apparently fearful that I am in the grip of a threatening atavism and about to revert to some ancient and boring rustic pattern. Well, so what if I am? Many people round about, especially the aforementioned old yiayathes, think I’ve had my fun. They’re relieved that the foreign witch has seen sense and is doing something useful. At last.

Getting started on the vegie venture took some time. Because I’d been away for months, the whole garden took me what seemed like an eternity to clear up. I counted the jumbo-sized plastic bags as I worked. Each one holds 80 litres and I filled 35 of them with weeds and a motley collection of rubbish. I also had to dismantle a marathon-like tumulus of light wood—olive prunings mostly—mixed with weeds, rubbish and dirt, in the backyard. This alone took me days.

After that I had to assemble my poor collection of tools: the archaic spade with the equally archaic broken handle, the hoe with a head so temperamental that it regularly and heavily falls on my feet, and the rake, bought from the village shop last summer: the going price was about 50 cents a tine, with the handle extra. I decided I needed a watering can and trowel, and so had an entertaining interlude in the neighbouring town of Kalamata when I discovered, yet again, yawning gaps in my modern Greek vocabulary. The watering can was easy: it was sitting on the pavement outside the shop, but the trowel was another matter. I described what I wanted and the rather courtly shop-owner went straight to a stand and produced a set of two little forks and a trowel, annoyingly painted an earth-brown colour.
‘What’s the Greek word for this thing, anyway?’ I asked.

‘Blowed if I know,’ came the reply, or in words to that effect. ‘A little spade?’

I begin my horticultural endeavour in a condition of almost total ignorance, the lessons taught me by mother-in-law Aphrodite now largely forgotten; she was convinced I needed remedial teaching, anyway. The only thing to do, I decide, is to learn from the environment and take a general approach of by-guess-and-by-God. I skulk around during siesta time—when the whole village dies a ritual and temporary death—in order to avoid interrogation, the inquisition, the catechism of rural life; I peep over walls and through fences in an effort to check on what is growing at the height of summer and how vegetable gardens are generally organised.

In the best gardens (and I decide there are two that would win any competition anywhere) loving care is obvious. No weed dares rear its ugly head; neat walkways allow for easy watering of the aubergines and courgettes surrounded by little canals, and of tomatoes tied to wigwam-like structures. Marigolds and basil, planted at judicious intervals, keep voracious bugs away from the infant vegies, while sunflowers, nodding from a great height, guard the whole. For the life of me I cannot see any peppers, but eventually decide to plant mine on mounds, where they eventually look like proud little flags fluttering in the light breeze of morning, and then drooping at the mast in the midday heat.

I bring back several bundles from the Kalamata market. Wet little wrappings of brown paper are secured by lengths of blue and orange twine cunningly arranged to unravel the moment the end is pulled. Pellets of sheep dung cling to the black soil. I plant my various purchases and protect them from the heat with newspaper, remembering mother-in-law Aphrodite painstakingly fashioning little Chinese hats out of the English newspapers I used to buy.

Surprisingly soon I have neat little rows of several vegetables, including vleeta.

Kyria Theoni gave me the vleeta as a kind of reward, handing over what look like a million tiny black seeds all wrapped up in a scrap of tissue paper and secured with a rubber band.

She is very approving of my efforts. ‘A baktse, Kyra Yeorgina! Bravo. A little vegetable garden ne pernaei ee ora.’ And she flashes her gold fillings at me.

‘Yes,’ I reply, feeling buoyed by her kindness, but not deeming it worth the effort to explain for the hundredth time that I never have trouble whiling away the time: it leaps and bounds and gallops off into the distance at full speed. She gives me instructions about the vleeta, and I feel my heart sink.
‘You’re not going to growl at me and complain if nothing happens, are you?’ I ask anxiously. ‘I’m not very good at this sort of thing, you know.’

‘Sopa de! Don’t be so silly. It’ll grow. Just you wait and see.’

And so it does. And then I start wondering what vleeta is exactly. To me it’s just a tallish, leafy green that the Greeks boil to death and then eat with lemon juice and olive oil. Definitely an acquired taste, like silverbeet and spinach, only more so. Philhellene Beverley in Australia will know, I am sure. It turns out that she doesn’t exactly, but she is interested to find out. It is called ‘blite’ in English, but dictionary definitions are vague. Blite can be a pot-herb, or amaranth or spinach, the authorities not being at all sure of their translations. Bev quotes from her man of the hour, Philemon Holland, Doctor of Physick, who translated Pliny in 1601. This is the translation used by Shakespeare, and Bev goes on to suggest that Pliny’s comments could serve as a fine curse if the vleeta doesn’t come up to scratch, because Pliny didn’t care for it. ‘Bleets seeme to be dull, vnsauorie and foolish Woorts, having no tast nor quicknesse at all.’

The blite/bleet/vleeta correspondence carries on for quite some days in cyberspace. Beverley suspects, but I’m not supposed to breathe a word, that Philemon ‘lays it on a bit thick here and there,’ so she meticulously and kindly checks the Loeb edition of Pliny. Prosaically named translator Jones offers the following version:

Blite seems to be an inactive plant, without flavour or any sharp quality, for which reason in Menander husbands use it as a term of abuse for their wives. It is injurious to the stomach. It so disturbs the bowels as to cause cholera in some persons. It is said however to be good for scorpion stings when drunk in wine, for corns on the feet when applied in liniment, and also, with oil, for diseases of the spleen and for pain in the temples. Used as a food it is thought by Hippocrates to check menstruation.
I regard the blite/vleeta in a new and rather dubious light and can only hope that the other plants in my garden are not as freighted and fraught with as much meaning and potentiality. I also hope they have more taste.

Everything starts to grow like mad, and in no time at all I can see the pale mauve frill of aubergine flowers with their yellow centre, and the white bell of the pepper flowers. Quite suddenly an actual aubergine appears, small, glossily purple in colour and phallic in shape, emerging and growing, supported by its rim of furry green. Smooth little buds appear on the pepper plants. And later the papery yellow trumpets of courgettes open and close with the sun.

The garden makes me notice again the little things and incidents I keep forgetting. I sit mesmerised for minutes while a single olive leaf spins and twirls at the end of a gleaming thread of cobweb. I observe a cicada hanging upside down, apparently glued to a twig. A tiny striped newt, barely three inches long, darts along the wall, a large ochre-coloured hornet clamped between its jaws. And then there are the geometric patterns on a butterfly: cream, yellow and blue marked with a black edge. The perfect creature skims and flutters, swoops and dives, alive for a day and making the most of every moment.
I can’t believe that we’re actually eating aubergines and peppers from the garden! And then there’s the parsley, and I’m also keeping a careful watch on the mixed salad plants newly sprouted from seeds ordered online from England. Of these last the locals are deeply suspicious, so I fantasise about spreading rocket, frisée and largesse about the neighbourhood. But then the courgettes fail, and I feel a bit crestfallen, but Maria-from-next-door tells me how to use the flowers. Fry up some onion and garlic and then grate some tomato, add whatever else you like and the flowers at the last minute and oriste! There, you’ll be surprised at how delicious it all is. She’s right, and the whole concoction also looks very pretty. But somehow I have the feeling that this gardening business is all going too well to last.

Autumn

Sure enough, nemesis is at hand. In the guise of chooks. I always knew that poultry and I are natural enemies. I once had to guide my frightened children past nesting geese and protective ganders in Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens. Not a pleasant experience: I can still remember the violent
hissing and the frantic beating of wings, and the creatures looked very large. Yiayia’s favourite rooster, not so large but still large enough, would peck me viciously whenever I ventured into the fowl-yard in the course of my apprenticeship as a village woman. If ever a rooster did this to my paternal grandmother he would live to regret it, or rather, did not live very long at all. But she was, unlike me, basically very fond of chickens and actually hatched one out by putting the egg in a soup plate on the hob of her wood stove and poking at it carefully and at judicially timed intervals with a darning needle. In due course the reluctant chick struggled out of the shell and was promptly christened Caesar. Never having seen his own mother, Caesar was convinced that my grandmother was a hen and followed her everywhere for quite some time. But I digress.

This afternoon I discover that the four feathered fiends belonging to one of the neighbours have wrought havoc in my garden. The whole back area underneath the grapevine has been assiduously dug up and mini-mountains of dirt deposited on the path, which is now invisible. But oh, my precious vegies! Ten broccoli plants have suffered death from a thousand pecks, the radishes have taken a severe beating, and half of the precious mixed salad plants have been scratched to extinction. I am, as my old Mum would have said, absolutely ropeable, have murder in my heart, and wish I had had a tomahawk in hand at the appropriate moment. Who would have thought that a mere four perambulating potential dusters could do such damage? I decide against the tomahawk: if I see the offenders in my garden again, the hose will be the weapon of choice. Wet hens.

Two days later they do it again, and my English mixed salad is no more. Two of the neighbours are irate on my behalf and inform me that the owner of the offending birds is hiding inside her house. ‘She always does that,’ says Kyria Ariadne matter-of-factly. ‘Those chickens have done for my pumpkins entirely,’ announces Kyria Calliope, the cantankerous widow from next door. In the past this woman has made my life difficult: my children and my dog were trespassing on her land and she wouldn’t stand for it; she watched my father build a barbecue and then announced it was illegal because it backed on to her six-inch-high wall. My side of this long wall was not tidy enough for her liking; so it went on. For years. But now, when she sees me staggering back from the agora with a huge roll of chicken wire, she decides we are united in victimhood. The troubled past disappears in a flash and she commiserates, while having a vengeful verbal lash or two at the absent chicken-fancier.

Bleeding fingers are the result of my fence-making efforts. The wire barriers I manage to erect are desperately ugly, but so are the offending chooks. And then the weather changes, and a gale-force wind blows for three days, after which what is left of the vegie garden is flattened anyway. The chooks do not venture out in this inclement weather: I have done my money. Oh well, at least now I have an inkling of how primary producers feel. And I can’t think that any of us would necessarily agree with Francis Bacon. 

Gillian Bouras is a freelance writer, whose books are published by Penguin Australia.

 

 

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