Tomatoes, Bindweed and Comfrey Tea
I am no gardener. I keep weeds at bay, hedges trimmed and the lawn mowed in my modest back garden. I even stretched to some dead-heading of the roses out front recently but that was because a local community event meant we were on show. Otherwise I have kept all things gardening to a minimum since I became a home-owner almost fourteen years ago. Indeed, I was quite traumatised some time back when my stepdad turned up with a set of tomato plants and instructed me to plant them. I recoiled in horror at the suggestion, though he left them behind and so I had no choice but to commit them to the earth. My brother-in-law at the time came down and helped me install a proper earth bed and they went in. After a summer of prodigious tomato growth, we replaced them with strawberries and have been racing the snails to the fruit ever since. During the tomato and early strawberry era my daughter seemed keen to develop green fingers. Indeed, it was she for whom the soil bed was constructed. However, I alone was left to harvest this summer’s strawberry crop and although they were tasty, I am still no gardener. It is with some surprise, then, that I find myself spending an increasing amount of time in garden settings.
I am currently diagnosed with depression and have been on and off work for the past twenty months. As a teacher I used to struggle to keep myself occupied during the school holidays. To maintain myself in the weeks and months that have ebbed by since I became unwell has been a tortuous task. I have made trips to the gym and the swimming pool, though increasingly infrequently of late. I have walked up the local hill and back, though I take the bus more and more. I have even tried yoga on a Sunday morning but the after-burn was just too much to keep my interest. I do attend a mental health support group twice-weekly. This at least offers some structure to seven days that fly by all too quickly. More often though, I exist in a haze of anti-depressants and eyes tightly shut in an attempt to block out a scary, confusing world. I remember the time when telephones rang from the hallway and you lifted the receiver to answer in anticipation; a time when a cassette Walkman was the height of modern technology; and a time when questions needed pondering and cogitating on rather than being answered instantly through an internet-connected ‘phone’. I hear current chart hits mostly as noise and feel woefully out of touch with the business of the nation. The world is steaming ahead without me and I lay paralysed in its wake, bemused, bedraggled and befuddled. Add in some poor mental health and much of the time I have felt in a pretty sorry state.
Into this splintered picture has arrived the Sydenham Garden Project. This local charity aims to support those suffering from poor mental health, particularly depression and anxiety. Lately groups have also started for people with dementia. It operates across two sites, both situated in large plots behind suburban streets in south London. I was first recommended the project by my GP, though my antipathy towards gardening popped it firmly into my out tray. However, something registered and I ended up asking my community psychiatrist for a referral, which he was only too happy to do. After an introductory meeting and tour around the site with support worker Jermaine, I turned up for my first proper session under the supportively watchful eye of project group leader Rachael. She was incredibly positive and cheery, as was long-time volunteer Lauren. They still are. That first week, I chose my first job at the start-of-session briefing. I was to make Comfrey Tea. For those that don’t know, and I certainly didn’t, Comfrey is part of the Borage family of weeds. It has thick stalks and fleshy leaves. Lauren was detailed to help me out as we plucked and then cut up handfuls of Comfrey, depositing it in an old recycling bin with a lid to prevent it from becoming diluted should any rain fall while it was brewing. Apparently, an earlier batch of Nettle Tea had been ruined by just such an occurrence. We added water so that the stalks and leaves were covered and then weighed the whole mixture down with some bricks. Finally, with the lid down, I proudly wrote a label stating “Comfrey Tea brewing. Please leave lid closed.” Rachael told me that this concoction would smell very pungent when it was ready in a fortnight or so. “It really, really, really stinks,” she added cheerily. It would then need straining through a pair of old tights and, diluted, be great food for the tomatoes on account of its high Potassium content. At that stage I was sure this was too much information, being as I have trouble both with concentrating and with my memory. However, I nodded and looked suitably engrossed whilst making a mental note to avoid the straining process at all costs.
There was much talk of straining the Comfrey Tea over the ensuing weeks. Rachael was sure it was ready, given not only the length of time it had been brewing but also the hot weather we’d had. And yet, week after week, the Comfrey Tea remained untouched. At yet another briefing where the straining task was on offer, I realised that I really had to finish the job I’d started. Along with newer gardener Paul, with whom I’d done some rather nifty seeding the previous week, I approached the recycling bin with caution. Rachael found some old tights and a bucket into which we would strain the tea and off we went. Paul was, it seems, slightly more down wind than I was as we poured this rank-looking mixture through the tights and into the bucket. I was taking in short gulps of fresh air as best I could. Paul was having trouble breathing at all. It was indeed a foul odour, reminiscent of that 70’s classic the glass-housed stink bomb, though not quite as acrid. Nonetheless, we sieved the tea and then successfully decanted it into four-pint empty plastic milk bottles. Finally, we diluted it 1 part Comfrey Tea to 10 parts water in a watering can and I went about watering the tomato plants with this Potassium-heavy feed. I now know that Potassium is good for fruit growth in plants and Nitrogen, from Nettle Tea, is good for foliage growth, say in house plants or greens. Smelly as it was, I felt a real sense of satisfaction from the morning’s work. “You’re a real hero for doing that, Jon. I’ve been thinking that those tomatoes needed feeding for ages. You’ve done it. Thank you,” said Rachael very cheerily.
I was thinking about the whole process as I walked up the hill to my mum Pauline and step-dad Andrew’s for lunch, having worked on tomatoes in their garden the previous day. Pauline has been poorly for quite some time. She is in hospital now but for a good while Andrew was looking after her at home, a full-time job. Andrew has green fingers but he hasn’t had much time to use them recently. Their extensive garden has two sheds and a greenhouse, along with various fruit bushes, fruit trees and raised beds for vegetables and salads. A few days previously I had looked at the over-long grass and the bindweed around the greenhouse and resolved to offer my help. I wondered briefly if I was in danger of becoming a gardener but quickly dismissed the idea. I was just assisting in an hour of need.
Andrew seems always to have grown tomato plants, all nicely tied to bamboo canes and producing copious amounts of tomatoes. My offer of help had been gratefully received and, having mowed the lawn and picked some ripe fruit, my next task was to involve planting out tomato plants that, Andrew informed me, “should have been done weeks ago!” He slung a few up onto the greenhouse work shelf from their housing in small pots on the ground. “Move all those up here, get rid of all the bindweed, set up some canes and tie them off so that they can support the plants when the tomatoes arrive. Make sure you don’t tie them too tightly, so they don’t get strangled as they grow.” After a quick demonstration involving garden wire and a cane Andrew sped off to sort out lunch, leaving me breathing deeply as I pondered the complexity of the task ahead. I refocussed and looked at the bindweed. It had found its way around much of the material inside the greenhouse. Slowly and methodically I clipped and unwound it from shelving, canes, plants and tools. It took time but as I freed that which it was gripping tightly, I felt myself to be a little freer too. There remained plenty of bindweed outside, pressing against the glass, looking in avariciously. It is a claustrophobic image, even now. Clearing that lot remains a job for another day. Once the last strand of bindweed was out from inside the greenhouse, I set about constructing the cane supports, arranging some horizontally overhead as well as vertically up from the soil bed below. “How are you getting on?” beamed Andrew when he came to get me for lunch. He glanced over my work. “You’re getting there,” he observed. I had managed the bindweed and six canes. There were thirteen plants in all so this was going to take a while longer. After lunch I returned to the task and by the end of the afternoon, with Andrew long gone on a hospital visit, I stood back to admire some rather regal-looking tomato plants and their supporting canes all set up in a bindweed-free environment. I watered them thoroughly and surveyed them again, this time for a good long while.
So it was the following day that I was walking up to the house thinking about tomato feed. I remembered a red container I’d seen in Andrew and Pauline’s garden with a picture of a tomato on the front. This, I reasoned, may well be tomato feed. As we sat outside for lunch, I told Andrew about my adventure straining the Comfrey Tea. I asked about the red container and he confirmed that it was indeed tomato feed, “high in Phosphorous.” I wanted to correct him but didn’t feel confident enough to do so. He fetched the container over and read the label. “Not Phosphorous, Potassium. Some feeds are high in Potassium and some are high in Nitrogen. Some are all purpose and have equal measures of all three.” I shared my newly acquired knowledge of the different uses for the feeds and we tucked into lunch. I told him I’d feed the tomatoes that very afternoon, with the dilution as directed on the container. This was, of course, an industrially produced feed. However, in the absence of any Comfrey Tea Andrew felt it would be fine.
On good days, or during good hours, my mind feels like that greenhouse. It is clear of bindweed and its tomatoes are well fed, standing tall. I am a man with a PhD, a creative brain and a future. On bad days, or during bad hours, my mind can feel like it’s wrapped in bindweed. I forget the names of people or places I know well; I recall random images, some of which are not from memory but seem conjured up in a dented imagination; I worry incessantly about things I can’t control, like my newly-found unemployment or our family budget; I mourn for the man I was and fret about the man-child I have become; and I feel desperately sad for my children, robbed as they have been for now of a father who once had the answers to all their problems, or at least thought he did. I do, however, take some comfort from my development in the garden. It would not be wise to drink our Comfrey Tea but it is worth recalling the technique behind successfully growing tomatoes: clear out the bindweed, build the supporting structure, plant out, feed, water and let nature do the rest. It seems I may become a gardener after all.
all images ©abriscombe
Jon Preston, July 2019