The plot thickens, but not with vegetables

It's like Italy here, this year, for zucchini. Zucchini rampant. Southwest Scotland can't be guaranteed to provide perfect conditions for growing squash every summer. But we have bathed in such Mediterranean heat, day after day, that there has been no need for sun-starved Scots to head to southern Europe for their annual browning.

And lately, every time I return from my vegetable plot, I come bearing two or three marrows (as we call them). They take up residence in the trug. There they pile up, awaiting culinary inspiration to strike.

A trug (a British word) is a traditional shallow basket made of strips of wood. Designed for carrying flowers and produce, it has about it an air of country living. I keep forgetting to take it down to the plot with me, though, and sitting as it does just inside the back door, it is a favorite curling-up container for the black cat.

Most of this summer there has been room enough and to spare for him to share the trug with the only other object in it - a packet of seeds.

Thereby hangs a tale. A tale of - what should I say? - of recalcitrance and rescue? Of abandonment and retrieval?

Although this seed packet has been the only one in the trug, the awful fact is that a whole bagful of similarly unopened seed packets has resided in a cupboard. Not a single seed has been sown.

I have my excuses. The phrase "allocation of time" comes to mind, sounding suitably ponderous and unconvincing. Suffice it to say, there comes a time when it is too late to sow vegetable seeds. I aim to have all seeds sown by the end of May. But the end of May came and went, followed with quite astounding speed by the ends of June and July...

After two or three months of not visiting the plot, one's disinclination to visit it grows proportionately to one's horror of what one might encounter if one did. In my imagination, the weeds had reached three feet, seven feet, 12 feet high. Tangling blackberries invaded like jagged snakes, nettles reached for the sky, thistles bristled, and dandelion seeds wafted and danced like fireflies. By comparison, Jack's beanstalk was a bonsai.

So I can't claim that the arrival of the letter was a complete surprise. It talked of "signs of neglect." It talked of "21 days to put things right." It talked of membership termination in the community gardens.

I slunk down to the plots for three evenings, hoping no one would see me. This was not so much shame as a wish to avoid conversation. My fellow-plotters socialize as much as they garden, and I needed uninterrupted work sessions.

To start with, it was impossible to enter my plot beyond its gate. This gate is an old door, and when I opened it, it was if another closed door faced me - this one made of weeds.

A less-experienced pioneer might have turned away and gone back East. But I have "been here, done that." I have made gardens from scratch before. Indeed, this very plot, when I took it over years ago, had been in a wilderness state

It is amazing how a judicious ruthlessness soon cuts an overgrown garden down to its bare bones. My brick paths and box hedges reappeared, were weeded and clipped. Dead raspberry canes were cut out, the new ones tied tidily. The asparagus ferns were rediscovered and staked.

I could now reach my shed unopposed. By the third evening, when Betty (treasurer and stalwart member of the committee) suddenly appeared, she could actually see me. I was three-quarters of the way to the back fence.

Betty was careful not to praise my progress too strongly. She was not displeased, but made it clear that cutting down was not enough. I must also dig.

"I've started," I said, pointing to a proud patch of newly turned earth.

But I could tell she didn't think it was enough. She said, "It's not enough."

I have had my plot a year or two longer than Betty has had hers. She had never seen my plot at its best. So she could not visualize, as I could, how thorough and relentless my gardening can be.

Nurse Elizabeth (secretary and signer of my warning letter) remembered my successes of yesteryear when she came by a few evenings later. She was definitely encouraging. "I knew you'd do it!" she smiled. "I know what your plot was like."

Some time after this, the Irishman whose plot is at the far end of mine told me he thought I'd worked well. "In fact," he said, "you've transformed it."

Perhaps only I know how much further I need to go before I have my plot under my thumb again. But 2003 will have to go down as a fallow year, and I'm sure next year's vegetables will flourish unusually in the refreshed and rested earth.

A question arises: What should we do with the unopened seed packet the cat has kept warm so long in the trug? The seeds in it, unsown, happen to be marrows. Yet we have more marrows in our kitchen this year than in living memory.

All of them have been gifts. Now that it is possible to reach the door of my plot shed without wielding a machete, fellow-plotter Robert has been depositing marrows in it daily. He loves growing them, but doesn't really fancy eating them. I am one of the fortunate recipients of his largesse.

So the question is, do I actually need to grow my own zucchini?

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