Don’t be afraid of the odd brown leaf or wonky vegetable – appearances can be deceptive, and in gardening they usually are

I am disappointed if mine are anything other than wonky, because it would suggest they have been unjustifiably cosseted.

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I certainly know the tone of horticultural anxiety when I hear it. One of my oldest friends – one who, despite loving her garden, has an uncertain bedrock of knowledge upon which her gardening activity is founded – habitually ends a phone conversation with, “May I ask you one more thing?” to which my usual response is, “All right, what’s died this time?”

There are lovely folk in my village with rather similar worries, and I knew one would be knocking on my door as soon as I saw the horse-chestnut trees in our churchyard recently: the foliage had turned prematurely brown. Sure enough, the knock came and I was able to reassure my neighbour that the trees were most unlikely to die – at least in the short term. They were suffering  from the now almost ubiquitous attack of the horse-chestnut leaf-mining moth.

In truth, I received two such knocks in the same week. A different neighbour appeared clutching a handful of leaves from her pear tree. Each bore several orange specks, but the question was the same. “Will they die?” she asked. The answer, too, was the same: “No.” The cause of such blemishes is pear rust disease, which has become much more common in recent years but is unlikely to have any long-term effects either on the vigour of the tree or its yield.

These two episodes are simple manifestations of a widespread concern among gardeners, fuelled I have no doubt by the appearance of the supermarket fruit and vegetable counter. It is a belief that all fruit and vegetables, all flowers, all plants of any and every kind, must be blemish-free. But life – and nature – is not like that.

I have to smile at the recent promotion by supermarkets of what are called “wonky vegetables”. I am disappointed if mine are anything other than wonky, because it would suggest they have been unjustifiably cosseted and tampered with. Indeed, there are instances where crops are improved by a bit of nature’s intervention: apples with some scab on them, for instance, tend to be sweeter because the scab fungus induces the plant to produce more sugars as a defence mechanism.

Almost nothing in my kitchen garden is blemish-free, but it’s none the worse for it. The beans have blotches on the pods, the potatoes have areas of rough skin, the broccoli has bits missing, the kale leaves are embellished with whitefly and the apples are scabby.

The reason for this state of affairs is that I do not subscribe to the commercial trade’s obsession with what I call cosmetic horticulture: the use of sprays and other treatments to try to produce crops that are as alike as – well, I suppose, two peas in a pod. (Except that the peas in my pods seldom are alike because generally at least one is attacked by pea moths!)

Yes, appearances can be deceptive and in gardening they usually are. Things are almost never as bad as they seem, and fruit and vegetables are very seldom rendered inedible by an affliction, but are usually fine after a bit of judicious scraping and slicing. And always remember that plant diseases – fungi and viruses – do not infect people; provided you do not dine on something obviously rotten, you will come to no harm and live to garden again. So while horticultural anxiety is quite understandable, horticultural hypochondria is something quite different and definitely to be avoided.

Next week: Nina Caplan on drink

This article appears in the 06 September 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The new civil war