Which mischievous deity is it that never fails to bring an unexpected early-morning visitor to the gate on those occasions when we are disgustingly late to arise? Maniacal barking from the dogs this morning at 9.30 heralded our wood merchant, with TOH unloading the dishwasher in his birthday suit, and oneself still in one’s pink satin shortie nightie. Enfolding myself in a black silk kimono I attend to M. Rousseau’s needs, noticing that he is discreetly trying to get a glimpse through the kimono.
No sooner has M. Rousseau left, than our farmer friend Fabrice arrives. What he doesn’t know about growing vegetables wouldn’t fill the nostril of an ant. And he’s not one to be encouragingly polite at my ineptness, either. So when he arrives this morning for his habitual tasse de café after doing something to the potatoes he plants in our vacant field, I almost burst into tears of joy when he compliments our modest patch of potatoes. Elles sont très belles, he pronounces. My potatoes are beautiful. For the first time ever, I have grown something worthy of his praise.
I gesture to the shallots. He nods noncommitally. But why haven’t we any garlic growing? I planted some, but nothing happened. But did I buy planting garlic, or just use cloves from the stuff we use for cooking? The latter. “Ah! Little wonder nothing happened. That’s the same as planting tinned peas. Now, about the potatoes. You have sprayed them, haven’t you?” I look blankly from him to my perfect plants. “But you must! Mildew. Every fortnight you have to spray them with Bordeaux mixture. And the shallots – you need to treat them with sulphur. The strawberries – which I thought looked quite good – he tells me are very poor. They’re going to get rust. You need to do something about them. Pull them up and plant new ones.” But it was only a couple of months ago that we thinned out the patch and replanted them. It took nearly all day.
The reason our runner beans haven’t germinated is that they’re too wet. His beans are already 20 cm. high. My confidence and enthusiasm as a vegetable-grower are fading fast.
Even before I show Fabrice the unusual tomato plants we bought yesterday, I know he isn’t going to be impressed. “This is a blue one; this is black, and this one produces white fruit. They are old and rare varieties.” He shrugs. “I like tomatoes to look like tomatoes – red.” Well, we also have those; I point to a dozen plants we bought from the market a few days ago. “What variety are they?” I look for labels. There are none. I struggle to remember what the tomato-man told me, or for some names from the dozens of varieties he was selling. It seems to foolish not to know what we have bought. “I think these are cherry tomatoes, and I seem to remember these are called …………. Carmello!” “Bon. But you would have been better to buy the long variety with firm flesh and few pips.” God Almighty, next he’s going to expect us to know the names of each individual fruit on the damned things.
“You do know how to plant tomatoes, don’t you?” Is he having a laugh? Does he think I am so stupid I can’t take a tomato out of its pot and stick it in the ground? “Right up to here,” he says, indicating about 10 cm. below the tip of the plant. “Plant them really deep – even lying down – just leaving the crown and top two leaves showing.” I stare at him dumbly, wondering if this is some French joke. “Like that, secondary roots develop all along the buried stem. They hold the plant securely, and it will grow strong.” No wonder mine usually wobbled and toppled all over the place. They only ever got submerged to the same level as in the pots. Well, I’ve learned two things so far this morning: firstly, the correct way to plant tomatoes, and secondly that growing vegetables isn’t nearly as easy as Mr Nextdoor makes it look. I’ve never seen him do anything except hoe, and he has luxuriant rows of just about every vegetable you can name.
Fabrice takes his leave, promising to return this evening with some sorrel plants, and lightly grazing the front of my T-shirt with his index finger, as he always does.
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