Life winds along, and once again we find ourselves – both cook and gardener - back in southern Germany. We’re here to lend the old fellow a hand with cooking and cleaning and the comfort of family nearby.
He’s 86 now, and a widower since this time last year. He’s paler and slower and his old knee injury exacerbates his limp. And so it is, for the first time in over thirty years of flying half way around the world to visit, that I am allowed to play a part in tending the small veggie patch that he has cared for so lovingly all these years.
German veggie patches – like those down-under in Australia – have shrunk in size and importance over these past three decades. This ones a doddle – it’s so tiny I feel as though I’m playing at growing things! Yet its pleasant to be outside, doing something useful other than eating cake and drinking coffee and never quite managing to have a holiday. At least it is winter back home, and I can count on the rains to carry on the irrigation cycles in my absence.
In the eight months since I was here last, Germany has been beset by torrential rains, flooding, cold and chilly soils. Gardens are lagging at least four weeks behind schedule, and we’re already well into a summer that has had no spring. By contrast, I’ve endured eight months of heat and drought down-under, with no rain at all and water bills going through the roof. Somehow my allotted rainfall seems to have been diverted northwards…
The soil here is different too – loose and grey and sandy, ground down by the weight of glaciers that covered these areas for tens of thousand of years during the last ice age, and before they retreated north. The water-holding capacity of these soils is low, as is the organic matter content, and so I find myself lightly cultivating the surface layers to act as a natural mulch to prevent evaporation on those days when the sun actually shines.
Some of the mandatory visiting takes us back to the home village, and there behind the staid and unlovely facades of houses along the street front lie even bigger gardens. I have a small stake in these gardens too – over the years I have carried small gifts of vegetable seeds to German friends and relatives from my Australian collection; varieties not found here anymore. ‘Mortgage Lifter’ tomatoes, ‘Lazy Wife’ beans and ‘Royal Oak-leaf’ lettuces are always a source of pride and connection between us as we make our tours of these ancient veggie patches.
Somewhere I sense that this part of my life is drawing to a close. When the cook’s father goes, there will no longer be that pressing need to keep up this family connection, and I will have lost a good friend. Sure, we might at last be able to spend our holidays travelling that vast and southern ancient continent, and feel free to head to Asia rather than Europe every year for our annual holidays.
But I’ll miss the old bloke. We always got on, drinking beer together companionably on the back porch in the late summer evenings in these northern latitudes.And despite my faltering grasp of the German language, he always made the effort to explain things to me, harking back to his own poverty-stricken childhood in the village, with its close dependence on small veggie patches such as the one before us now.
I’ll bet he never dreamed of a future where his backyard veggie patch would one day be tended by a fellow gardener from far-off Australia…