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Nomadic Gardening

A narrowboat named Jack

A narrowboat boat made for two

I recently took a holiday on our beautiful inland waterways down the Oxford Canal. It’s a piece of canal I’ve never visited before and with the most glorious October weather on our side, we headed off on a 33ft canal boat called ‘Jack‘ into unknown territory. The Warwickshire/Oxfordshire scenery was just glorious in the autumn sun, with teasels and reed mace lining the canal banks, but the amount of wild fruit busting from every hedgerow was staggering to behold.

A crab apple tree growing in a hedgerow

Crab apple jelly anyone?

There were rose-hips (red and black), sloes and hawthorn berries, blackberries and more crab apples than I have ever seen in my life! The hedgerows were so overwhelmed and weighed down by apples, that they were all along the towpaths. Overnight, mats of apples would also form on the water, bobbing away gently until the first boat came through to push the mass to one side. Sadly, no-one seemed interested in the apples, but I spotted one opportunistic Moorhen drag a fruit onto the bank and set about demolishing it.

The front of a narrowboat, filled with flowers and herbs

Floating flowerpots

It wasn’t just the hedgerows that were bursting with life though, many private boat owners proudly carried pots of plants along with them on their journeys. Top, front, back and sides of boats were adorned with containers of all shapes and sizes, including glazed pots, plastic pots, recycled cans, planters made from wood, and many a container hand-decorated in the traditional canal-style. Plus, the ingenuity to create flat spaces to place a pot was quite something to see. I refer to this hobby on the move as ‘nomadic gardening’.

Red and white geraniums in a hand-painted flower pot

A burst of roof-top colour

Plants mainly ranged from summer bedding of geraniums (now looking a little tired in the winds of autumn), to winter bedding of violas and pansies, plus a few perennials – I spotted a large-ish Hosta on the back end of one stern and a Bonsai tree on the roof of another! However, the most aspiring of nomadic gardeners had a range of edible plants in addition to the decorative, including herbs (chives, parsley, etc.), chillies, tomatoes (both bush and vine varieties), cabbages, lettuce and even courgettes! Some looked weather worn, but you could tell they’d all been cared for as best they could, given the expertise of the gardener and the conditions along the canal.

Vegetable plants growing in pots on the roof of a canal boat

Roof-top veg garden

As we approached Banbury at the mid-point of our holiday, one canal boat had so many containers and vegetable plants growing on the roof, that there was barely room for the usual boating paraphernalia of plank, hook, pole and fenders. This was the finest example of nomadic gardening I have ever seen and would certainly have fed the person living on it quite admirably throughout the latter part of summer and into the autumn.

A line of flowerpots on the roof of a canal boat

Pretty herbs all in a row...

This nomadic lifestyle also reminded me of someone I got to know a little this year through her travels in a camper van called Beryl. Selina drove around the UK on a mini-adventure, visiting friends and enjoying the outdoors. I suggested that she take on the role of nomadic gardener during her travels. She was inspired by the idea and although I’m not sure whether she did get around to it in between all the fun she was having, it got me thinking that there are many people who believe that to garden you need a large plot of land and a lot of dedication. The offerings on many of the canal boats dispelled this myth and should serve as reference and inspiration for many a frustrated gardener hankering for a bit of land.

A sign pointing to a plant nursery

For all your nomadic gardening needs...

It seems that no matter what we do, or where we go, human beings are tied to the land and we both consciously and subconsciously honour that tie by taking small pieces of it along with us wherever we go. In fact, a sign on one bridge declaring “Plants for Boats”, had us mooring the boat and taking a look to see if there was anything suitable to could adorn our hire-boat for the rest of the week.

Some tomato plants growing in a planter at the base of a TV aerial

Tomatoes on the move

A short walk and the added pull of a cafe serving home-made cakes, led me to a small but well-stocked plant nursery with any plant you could ever want for a garden; nomadic or otherwise. I plumped for a rare blue-flowered low-growing Penstemmon that would look good moving or stationary, plus a chocolate brownie and a hot chocolate with all the trimmings!

I’ve never travelled long enough to get garden-sick, but I would certainly be turning my hand to a spot of nomadic gardening if ever I found myself spending a lot of time on the move. Are you or have you ever been a nomadic gardener? Do you have any tips or hints to share? If so, please leave a comment.

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