I don't have a lot of time to look at my garden. Not when I'm head-down-bum-up weeding, tipping barrow after barrow of animal manure onto the brassica beds, lugging trailer loads of kelp onto the compost, tossing great clouds of pine needle mulch over the hibernating rhubarb or scrabbling among the strawberry plants looking for runners. It's not that I'm anti-aesthetics (far from it) it's simply that, for the most part, I'm too darned busy growing what we eat to look around me, and when I'm not growing it, I'm writing about it!
Often, I'm ashamed to say, I harvest in the same busy way: grabbing a rather grubby-looking basket from the back porch and stomping out to the garden to pull up an armful of muddy carrots or beetroot. I'll unceremoniously whack off a red cabbage at its base without even thinking, and snatch a fist of coriander on my way back inside. Dinner done and dusted! But, this week, a neighbour (without realising it) rather stopped me in my tracks when she arrived at my door (with a clean basket) in search of prettiness.
Katy is our local caterer. She's our go-to person for everything from after the funeral finger-food to twenty-first parties. I don't quite know how she does it, but seemingly out of thin air she produces the sort of dishes that you and I only ever see in glossy magazines. This time round she was working on a wedding breakfast for the niece of a mutual friend, and was on the hunt for garnish.
'Garnish' is not something I usually think about. I might snatch a sprig of parsley on my way to deliver a meal to an elderly friend, and plonk it on top of the soup, but that's about as far as it goes.
'Help yourself,' I told Katy, pointing with the root end of a dock. 'I doubt you'll find much, but the parsley is over there.'
I put my head down amongst the parsnips and got on with my weeding while Katy disappeared behind the leeks. Five minutes later, she was back, and with a basket overflowing with so many colours and textures that it took my breath away.
'You didn't find all that in my garden, did you?' I asked.
Together, we looked at her finds. Among the herb flowers were the pale mauve blooms of chives, trumpets of neon-orange and red-brown nasturtiums, frothy yellow heads of dill, white-lace sprigs of coriander and pale lemon stars of roquette. There were also strings of oregano and thyme (which Katy planned to strew over plates of cold meat), furry sage leaves (apparently they look spectacular jammed between the cracks of split baked potatoes!), heads of tiny tree onions, bunches of feathery dill and coriander, stems of mint (for the punch) and, yes, the proverbial parsley.
'This collection is fantastic!' enthused Katy. 'And so pretty! You should be selling it!'
I looked around my garden as she headed out the gate toward her car. (And not, I might, add without noticing the colour and texture of my home-grown 'garnishes' in an entirely new way.) Then I laughed.
'Sure!' I called back. 'I'll just add 'garnish-growing' to my to-do list!'
I didn't, of course. But later that day, I found myself sprinkling over our broadbean falafel a scattering of red flowers from my pineapple sage.
'That's very pretty,' said my husband, at dinner.
To which I replied: 'Watch this space!'