In common with many people who support the idea of locally produced food, here at Aspen House we grow some of our own fruit and vegetables, thus becoming part of the local food system in the most personal way. With a desire to do no harm to the environment of which we are all part, we also maintain a chemical-free organic garden and operate what is known in green terminology as eco-friendly pest control, although ‘pest control’ is a phrase you will not find in my personal lexicon. I prefer to see myself working with ‘pests’ rather than against them or indeed imposing any kind of control on them. After all, what gives me the right to impose control on other creatures in their own habitat? More than that, of course, I don’t see them as pests at all. All I see are other living creatures with a basic need, and an implied right, to forage for food. I believe that it is incumbent on me to make allowances for this. The garden at Aspen House, as much as it is a cultivated space organised to our requirements, it is also a space to be shared with those creatures that live in it.
Thus, when it comes to slugs, for instance, I will not put down poisonous slug pellets for them to chew on. Apart from anything else, I do not want our resident hedgehog foraging in the middle of the night and picking up a toxic treat. So other methods must be found to keep the slugs off the tender new shoots of our emerging vegetables, and my aspiration was to forge a working relationship with the garden’s gastropods.
I have tried being reasonable. I’ve talked to the sluggish ringleader and made my point about leaving the weeds growing, so that there is something to eat other than nascent carrot tops, but all I get is, “We don’t like weeds any more than you do. We like juicy little newborn carrots. Juicy little anything really. New veggies are us.”
“What about lettuce?” I say.
“Lettuce is fine – especially young lettuce.”
“Yeah, cabbage is okay. Ish.”
So, last year I very obligingly went out every night during the growing season, headed for the slugs’ main foraging patch and sprinkled the ground with chopped discarded lettuce and cabbage leaves. It takes a certain amount of dedication to go to these lengths, but the goal of that working relationship was in my sights. Strewing the ground with shredded greens worked a treat until I forgot to do it for a couple of nights. Came the dawn, and the growing cauliflower plants looked like victims of Agent Orange. Despite the fact that it was well past sun-up, a couple of fat and sticky gastropods, too distended to make it back into the safety of their damp dark crannies, lay slumped against each other like two drunks on a park bench.
I tried to be more diligent after this incident, but the truth is that I was outwitted at every turn, not least by the fact that these slugs could put away shredded leaves at a frightening rate. Basically, I couldn’t supply enough to satiate them. For all I know, shredded leaves are the gastropod equivalent of popcorn and I was feeding a junk food addiction. That part of the vegetable garden became a write-off, a wasteland, an embarrassment and a testament to the voraciousness of legless troublemakers.
Through the winter, my mind ticked away, sifting different ideas to combat these wily slitherers. By the end of March, when my thoughts turned to the planting of heritage carrots, my mind was made up. I opted for the technological fix and bought three metres of netting and four hoops. The plan was simple. Plant some rows of carrots and beetroots, put in the hoops, cover same with netting, batten down the netting all round and – bingo! – a totally impenetrable slug-proof barrier.
I have to say, it worked. As the tiny shoots broke through, I would peer at them through the netting, well pleased with my own inventiveness. Through the dry spell, I gave them periodic sprinklings of water from the rainwater butt behind the shed, and the shoots continued to grow. When the rain came, the shoots shot. They seemed to triple in size at the speed of tropical bamboo. Pleased with progress, I planned a great unveiling, a day on which I would roll back the netting before an expectant audience and wallow in the pleasure of their astonished gasps at the lush rows of silky green tops.
On the morning of the ceremony, I went out first thing for another look at my latest gardening success. Peering through the netting, I grinned with inward satisfaction at the row of beetroots on the far side of the netting. Checking for the carrots on the near side, the green line of new growth was less obvious. Peering more closely, the reason for this was immediately apparent. There was no green line of new growth.
Looking on the bright side, there were three new healthy carrot tops at one end of the line, one somewhere near the middle, and another one near the other end. But everything else had gone – the little blighters had had the lot! Despite my inventiveness and the large sum of money spent on netting and hoops, despite the battening down of the edges with planks (held down by house bricks), despite everything, a whole row of carrots had virtually disappeared in one night.
Don’t worry though. I know what to do. A cunning plan was forming even before I began to tell this tale. Next time, there will be nothing for the slugs. What I’m going to do is this: I am going to leave the ground bare, shred up some nice green cabbage leaves, wilt them down in a pan with some butter and a sliced fresh onion . . . and serve them up for Sally and myself.