This punnet of celery is
900 years 9 months old. It’s a heritage variety, lovingly protected from the wicked hybridising ways of multinationals, raised without recourse to superphosphate or pesticides, its seeds collected and harboured by sequence of people of good will, finally given a new home on a windowsill that has scarcely ever seen any form of domestic cleaning product. And look how it has repaid me and all the hippies before me that sought to give it life.
At some point during the epic period of time it has taken this recalcitrant celery to grow to its current puny dimensions, I succumbed to a pack of genetically modified and chemically drenched celery seedlings from Bunnings. The evil celery has been planted out, watered, mulched, fertilised, endured winter, had a spring growth, been mulched again, and seen the inside of at least three soups. But it’s all too hard for our home-sown hero.
I wish I could claim that this diminutive plant was a radical experiment in developing kitchen-garden bonsai, or the result of a daring hybridisation of celery and genetic material from Methuselah, 4,845-year-old Great Basin bristle-cone pine, which holds the current record for the oldest tree in the world. Indeed, I’m sure any hypothetical future celery sticks that might be harvested from this uninspiring specimen would have the same flavour and texture as a lump of a four thousand year old pine bark.
Sadly, however, this is no horticultural break-through. It’s normal service. This is how we raise seeds in our Berowra backyard. The fact that the celery seedling is still clinging to life at all is, in truth, a triumph.
Here’s a typical sequence of events.
1. I observe a change in the seasons: a warm breeze, the hint of autumn rain. It’s late winter/ late summer – just the right time to put in some seedlings. I resolve to grow some.
2. Weeks pass. Sometimes months. Eventually in a late-night frenzy of consumer excitement, I order about a hundred packets of seeds from the prompt, informative and ever-reliable Green Harvest: eighteen types of beans, twelve types of rocket, cherry tomatoes shaped like a banana, a rubik’s cube and the Sphinx, vegetables I don’t like/have never heard of/have never successfully grown/wouldn’t know what to do with even if I succeeded in growing them.
3. Seeds arrive in my postbox in a flash. I file them carefully in an enormous box that previously stored floppy disks, fastidiously organised by season of planting and vegetable family, and filled with a panoply of seed packets, mostly well past their “use by” date. Weeks pass. Sometimes years.
4. One Sunday afternoon, in deep denial about the terminal decline of the weekend, I plant out at least four punnets of each of the hundred varieties. Space on the kitchen windowsill is now at a premium.
5. Within a week or two, nearly all of the seeds emerge and turn into thriving little plantlets, thrusting up into the light, energised by the stored resources of their subterranean seed. They grow a second thrilling set of leaves and sometimes a third.
… and then suddenly everything stops. It’s as if we’ve had a sneaky overnight visit from a vegetable hating comic-book super villain with a freezing deathray.
6. Tormented by the failure of my seedlings to grow even a millimetre, I am prompted to do one of the following:
(a) Anxiously over-water them. They rot. I throw them into the compost heap.
(b) Vengefully serve them up a little tough love (ie, neglect to water them). They maintain the same utter stasis but look a little bit crispier. Eventually, I throw them into the compost heap.
(c) Bemusedly supply them with more light and gentle healing rain by putting them outside in the Valley Of The Shadow of Death (aka the zone at the edge of the carport). From here they will inevitably tumble to their doom, knocked down by a promenading brush turkey, a pair of wrestling brush-tailed possums, a child with a skipping rope and/or RB on a bee line for the first cup of tea at the end of the working day. I swear a lot, scrape up the seed raising mix and throw it into the compost heap.
(d) Despairingly give up on producing decent sized seedlings and abandon the flimsy weaklings to their fate in the bottom of the garden. The following day will be the hottest of the year and by six in the evening the underprepared seedlings have been vaporised, leaving, at best, one or two limp greyish leaves draped over the mulch as a cruel reminder of the three months I’ve just wasted.
But it doesn’t have to be like this. Surely.
I have some ideas for diminishing the windowsill death toll. This is a non-exhaustive list and I welcome further suggestions.
1. Defrosting my static seedlings with Essence of Death (TM) compost tea. Treasure the Light Sussex drinks it with gusto and she has grown to an enormous size so surely it must give the seedlings a little vim and vigour.
2. Treating the babies to the occasional little holiday in the veggie garden, to suck up the rays and meet new friends.
3. Experiment with newspaper pots so plant and container can go, holus bolus, into the ground. The only outstanding issue with this plan, given the volume of newsprint bought by our household, is whether plant pots made of iPads and laptops are biodegradeable.
4. Plant everything out under veggie nets or horticultural fleece. With lucky, the seedlings, however feeble and under-developed, will transpire a bit less in those tricky first days. At worst, this will both delay the moment when I realise that it’s all been in vain and provide a fitting burial shroud.