How does my garden grow?

Charlotte Mendelson on her first non-fiction book


I know; I'm as surprised as you are. If, in my novel-writing twenties, you'd told me I'd one day write non-fiction, I'd have guessed the subtitle might be: "My Life in Baked Goods" or possibly "Unchallenging European Capital Cities I Have Loved" but definitely not, under any circumstances, the one printed on the book now lying on my desk: "A novelist, an obsession, a laughably small excuse for a vegetable garden." Yet here I am: amazed to be a novelist but much more shocked to be a passionate gardener.

Although I know you'll tell me I'm wrong, I don't think of gardening as a very Jewish activity. We, the people of the book, have many talents: reading, eating, arguing. What, in the main, we're not so good at is feats of practical skill and spacial awareness, particularly outdoors. Like camping, ugh, growing even the easiest fruit and vegetables is a time-consuming and muddy business. One must balance on step-ladders while holding sharp tools; work out how to attach flimsy netting to wobbly bamboo canes; sit about in the rain in allotments, not talking, with a thermos. Mightn't these activities be better left to professionals, preferably those employed by Marks and Spencer? Wouldn't we all be more comfortable inside?

Probably. I bear the scars of almost a decade of horticultural cluelessness; I have wasted time and money attempting to growing tropical vegetables in a tiny (North London, obviously) garden. I'm proud of having stuffed my six square metres of grotty urban soil and a few pots with over a hundred kinds of unusual edible crops: gorgeous flowers, herbs from Japan and Mexico and Sicily which transform my cooking.

I love gazing at pea-tendrils, or the vast viney leaves of "Tromboncino", an easily grown summer squash with a shape like a… never mind. The smells of damp soil and tomato-leaves delight me. I am at my happiest covered in home-made compost, cooing over my wriggly compost-worms like a deranged farmer. But let's be honest; the harvests are laughable. The soil is polluted. I have novels to write and a family to tend. What's wrong with the sofa?

Until I started Rhapsody in Green, I thought I was a strange, possibly disloyal, malfunction: a gardening Jew, first of my line. My refugee grandparents lived in small flats on noisy city roads, with either a couple of window-box of geraniums or dismal houseplants, faltering in polluted basement light. At weekends, to show us nature, they'd dress us up like tiny Russian pensioners and take us to Hyde Park, where we would briefly search for rabbits before hurrying back to the biscuit tin.

They wouldn't have known what to do with a hollyhock; in fact, I always thought their chief legacy was the Hungarian accent with which I think of certain plants: MIM-o-so; FOOK-si-o.

When I first fell in love with growing things, I pined for an English gardener's childhood: digging potatoes with tweedy Grandpa, helping an elegant mother deadhead the roses. Without this ancestral knowledge, surely I was doomed to fail. But, gradually, I came to see that this liberated me: instead of the traditional English vegetables, I grow sorrel and quinces, tayberries and golden raspberries, yellow and purple Italian beans and thirty kinds of salad-leaf.

Indeed, I now realise that I come from at least two generations of almost-gardeners. My mother's mother compensated for gardenlessness by making use of everyone else's, striding up paths to wrench blossom from strangers' cherry-trees while we hid behind cars, appalled yet proud.

My father's mother, widowed very young, very poor, did manage to grow something extraordinary: my father. He is a man of many enthusiasms, mostly bizarre - real tennis; Latin swearwords; speed-reading - but he is never prouder than when ceremoniously sharing something he has grown: a single wormy apple at Rosh Hashanah; three sun-warmed gooseberries; and, most dangerously of all, grapes.

He once made me and my infant sister tread a bucketful; they were hard and green and violently acidic and it was only when he noticed that we were weeping with the pain that we were freed.

Last autumn, he announced that he had a present for me. Knowing him, the possibilities were limitless: a portrait in oils of his dog; French painkillers; psychological advice in rhyming couplets; mustard.

On the table lay a soiled carrier bag.

"It looks a bit… bloody," I said.

"Grapes," he explained. "They ripened."

Pretending not to notice the smell of fermenting fruit, the luxuriant mould, I tasted one: mostly pip, slightly aged, but tasting, definitely, of grape, of wine and gardens, of Passover, of childhood. "You're virtually a farmer," I said, and he shone with pride.

So I choose to think of this strange gardening passion as genetic and, perhaps, not so very unJewish after all. After all, almost everything I grow is edible. I feel guilty about spending time out there. And I wrote a book about it. What more do you want?

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