Week 23: I will be a scruffy gardener.
The biggest thing I learned this week, is that nature doesn't mind if its a bit scruffy. It does not demand the perfection of straight lines, and does not appreciate the aesthetics of design, unless that design optimises basics such as soil, fresh air, water, and sunlight.
This week I have been spending a lot of spare time in one of the least glamorous areas of the garden. This week, I am learning more about how to grow vegetables.
Vegetables are not often brightly coloured, and as one of Leo's books points out - there isn't even a name for the colour of a potato. Outside of varieties such as rainbow chard, vegetables are rarely found in the borders of well manicured lawns, and are rarely used to spell out words at garden shows. We rarely bend down to smell the cabbage. But if you try eating a daffodil, next to a lettuce, you soon realise the superpower of vegetables comes from the beauty within.
This feeling of inner beauty, means that I have also found that growing vegetables can be a metaphor for life. A lot needs to happen below the surface for them to grow, just like self-care in ourselves for example, is very much focused on maintaining the balance within us, below the surface and invisible to others. It is a consistent practice and constant process, one where we check in with ourselves and adjust our own lives and lifestyle to keep healthy, and to grow. Some of us are more resilient than others, some of us need extra help from those around us. Some of us need more of one thing, some of us another. It is a deeply personal and individual practice, and everyone is different.
I am not saying that a person is exactly like a parsnip, or that we should discover the inner carrot. I think there are many failures in this metaphor too, such as the fact that we eventually eat vegetables. I can just see some similarities in the nurture we must give to things that we grow, that goes beyond immediate appearances and is not even for physical appearances in many cases.
There is also a seriousness to growing that should not be forgotten. There is a perception that you make a perfectly geometric plot, throw some seeds down, and then put a pan on the boil.
This is a misconception in my experience. Many vegetables take a long time to grow, and for most of that time what they are doing under the surface is a total mystery. We just hope that with careful care, and probably a large slice of luck, we one day discover something wonderful bursting forth from the soil. If you enjoy creating in any of its forms, then growing vegetables is a wonderful thing. What you produce might not look pretty, and might not fit a perception of perfection, but we love it, in all its knobbly glory.
You can probably tell that I was excited to tackle this week's change. I love creating, and I have grown to love the meditative nature of gardening. When there are things you have to do in your life that seemingly have no end point, the project of growing has lots of small wins. Planting the seeds is a win in itself, as packets of seeds can easily make it from the store to the shelf, but never the ground. Even the daily routine of watering and nurturing plants is a few minutes in the day of tranquility and a chance to breathe and focus.
It is also something I feel is not a totally new habit for us. Our planetwise change is therefore not to begin growing vegetables, as we have a few years experience under our belts. We were lucky enough to inherit a vegetable plot in our garden, along with a variety of mature fruit patches such as raspberries and gooseberries, and we have had a go since we moved here in 2014. Our change instead, is to find ways of growing the right vegetables, in the right quantity - because in this area I still have lots of questions in my mind about whether growing your own, is really the right choice.
When I say that, what I mean is that I am not sure growing your own vegetables is always necessary, at all. I can say this from the personal experience over a few years of trying to be a committed grower of vegetables. We are lucky enough to eat from our garden in some way for most of the Summer and Autumn. We have a chest freezer still full of last year's gooseberries, and sloes that are older than that. We make raspberry jam, apple chutney, and last year we made fifty litres of cider with the help of neighbours - whilst drinking about the same amount from the harvest of the year before. We take bowlfuls of plums to friends and family when we visit, and we forage blackberries about three yards from the back door.
However, nowhere in the above did I mention vegetables. Our track record there is frankly a disaster. We have been unable to really solve in previous years how to grow vegetables successfully, or we have grown too much, or we have grown things that in reflection we don't really want, and then haven't got around to giving them away.
Therefore, the research and the big questions for this week, will not come from gardening books or online sites in the first instance. These will give great information on anything that we want to grow. It is instead to look within, reflect on our failures, and figure out what we can do differently. It is as much about what not to do, as it is what to do. Is it to consider the vegetables we eat as a family, or would like to eat, and figure out what we really want from a vegetable patch, including the option that we should not grow certain vegetables at all.
This is perhaps also at the heart of what we are trying to do this year. To question everything, rather than follow templates of sustainable living, despite how it might create debates. To think about everything we do, and to make our own choices and respect the choices of others.
For example, we have superb local producers in the area, who provide certified organic vegetables, according to season and availability. We have a greengrocer in the local town, and we even have friends who have decades of experience in growing vegetables and are happy in the growing season to share their produce. We probably do not have to grow very much at all, to consume organic, responsibly grown produce.
Therefore I do not believe it is more planetwise for us as a family to grow things that we don't consume ourselves or do not have the chance to give away, and therefore go to waste. I don't think it is more planetwise to try and grow so much variety, that we don't have time to tend everything, and we leave salad leaves or courgettes for the slugs and snails to feast on rather than our family, or those we love.
I believe that in destiny of a seed that anyone is going to introduce to the soil, should be with an individual or a producer who can responsibly grow and harvest vegetables, that can be consumed or purchased with the knowledge of how to grow it successfully, and with the confidence that it will not be wasted. If we do grow a few selected things, then we can contribute to reducing the overall footprint of produce, but only if we are going to use them.
Before growing anything, we should consider whether it would be better for the planet to instead use that part of the garden for something else that might help pollinating insects or general wildlife such as green manure (https://www.rhs.org.uk/advice/profile?pid=373). And that instead we should support a local producer, or buy organic, seasonal and loose vegetables from a supermarket. There is lots of information in stores now about where produce comes from, and how it was farmed, and I believe in the principle that vegetables should not be grown with the aid of harmful chemicals, and that we should always try to know and trust where they came from.
Just that it doesn't necessarily need to be our back garden.
Only after that reflection, did we turn attention to what, and how, we grow vegetables in our own back garden. What might we appreciate nurturing for our own consumption, and how can we make it work and make it work in a way that we think we can continue permanently. Once something is in the ground, we can't go back, and so we need to make thoughtful decisions.
In terms of what we have decided to grow, it is small in number - firstly potatoes, tomatoes, and carrots. They are three things that we enjoy boiled, blitzed or fried in no particular or exclusive order. We have tried to grow them enough times to know most of the pitfalls, and we know they are hardy enough to be able to withstand a certain level of neglect, if we forget on certain days or times of the day to tend to them. We were also gifted some pumpkin seeds and two courgette plants too, so we'll give them a go to stretch ourselves and hopefully grow enough pumpkins to create a patch for friends at Halloween. Once you have made this decision, and had this first achievement, then the fun process of planting begins, my own expertise ends, and we turn to others.
This is because when growing vegetables, or anything that relies on a season, you only have one chance per year to get it right or wrong. Therefore, trial and error is a very long, and very frustrating way of learning. Someone who has been growing potatoes for twenty years, has been doing it a long time, but still only had twenty chances to get it right or wrong. Get it right, and it is a wonderful and bountiful experience. Get it wrong, and you have to wait eleven months before you get the chance to try again, assuming that you also realised or knew what you did wrong in the first place.
Speaking with those who have experience, or researching organisations and individuals that give advice, is worth the additional time on top of reading the seed packet or speaking to the experts in the store where you purchased the plant. It might not guarantee success, but it will certainly shortcut the long days and nights, wondering if you are going to see a shoot appear, and flourish. If you are also interested in discovering inspiration about how it can be done, then Ron Finley, the Gangsta Gardener, is an amazing example of this (http://ronfinley.com/).
For us, we have a neighbour who embodies two principles I believe we can introduce as permanent changes, will give us a really good chance of success, and are also good planetwise choices. This neighbour is Mr. Michael, who is a great friend to us, and for our little boy he is a source of constant joy and fascination. Whether he is showing us an interesting nut or beetle he found in the garden, or lifting up a stone in his hand-built pond to reveal a great fat frog and a delightfully gelatinous pile of frogspawn, Mr Michael never fails to make a highlight in our day when we are lucky enough to be out in our gardens at the same time.
Mr Michael understands his garden, and in my opinion is an inspiration in how to grow practically and sustainably, how and what to nurture, and ways that will help us make sure we grow the right things, in the right quantities.
The first thing, that to grow vegetables, what we have learned is that you do not need a large garden, a large vegetable plot, or even a garden at all. What you need, is to be able to control what you are growing to what you need, and know what you are looking at as it grows. We know from personal experience that growing a large variety of things, in a large vegetable plot, is a good way to lose control. For people with lifestyle such as our and knowledge such as ours, we just lose track of what we have, and where it is. When stuff grows, we then don't know if we are looking at the beginnings of a potato, or a weed. We don't know if it is rocket or a dandelion quite frankly.
Therefore, as the growing season continues, we have in the past grown increasingly frustrated at green mess, and then simply waited until late Autumn, and then dug up whatever is there in a mystery harvest. This in turn means we end up overwhelmed, that the produce is not that healthy, and therefore we waste a lot.
Mr Michael had a great solution for us to help with this, specifically for potatoes. Grow them in pots. One seed potato, in a large pot. For us, it is the perfect solution. We can control what is there, and have more confidence as we tend the plant that we are tending the right thing. One seed potato, if you make it work hard, can also provide around ten potatoes, which is the perfect amount for a family such as ours to manage. He gave us a lesson, from a safe distance over the fence today, and we have three pots planted, and when they grow we are going to make a game of counting the potatoes that some from each seed, to see which pot in the winner.
It is also a good planetwise solution for those who don't have a vegetable plot, or a garden. As long as you have access to a sunny balcony or a sunny spot on a patio, you can grow a few seed potatoes, perhaps even buy a shared bag of seed potatoes with neighbours, and all enjoy fresh vegetables that you have the satisfaction of growing yourself, and make it a game too. We like the way that it can become a game, because it builds an additional connection with your neighbours, and for Leo is a way of connecting with nature and the planet.
In addition, what we have found is that if you have a few pots outside the back door, then watering them during dry spells can be from the last bits of drinking water that lie around at the end of a day, that we might have previously thrown down the sink. The same can go for washing-up water or other water that might end up in the drain - it is called 'grey water' and you can find out about it here (https://www.rhs.org.uk/science/gardening-in-a-changing-world/water-use-in-gardens/using-grey-water).
The second planetwise principle, is to embrace reuse when growing your vegetables, if this is the way that you can make it work. There is nothing wrong with having a beautiful vegetable plot and pristine equipment, especially if this gives you what you need from the experience. But do not let it become a barrier. As long as the end point is the same, that we nurture the plant, and show it care, then whatever route taken is our own individual choice.
We have tomatoes growing in old take-away containers, that we hope to transplant when they get big enough. If this works, then we embrace a reuse principle and can use the take-away trays in future seasons and give them a second, third, or fourth life. Mr. Michael collects the trays that sometimes come with soft fruits, and uses these as nurseries and mini-greenhouses for seedlings, before washing them a using them again. We have grown sunflowers in his fruit trays this year, and they have grown as strong and as tall so far as they ever have, and are almost ready for the garden. The principle of reuse in growing vegetables will give you an imperfect looking windowsill, but the end point will be the same on the plate.
By embracing these two principles, then instead of planting day being a stressful and exhausting individual day that involved me charging around with a spade, it was instead a great family day and great memory, that we hope will become a tradition. We enjoyed the sunshine, we examined worms and centipedes. We tried to answer impossible questions from an inquisitive four-year old about who makes water, or who makes soil. It is a memory that we hope will continue and end in us enjoying the final stage of the process, and introducing Leo to fruit and vegetables that he has grown himself with the hope it will persuade him to eat them.
There are moments when I doubt whether keeping a diary like this is, in any way useful to me or anyone else. But then when you have moments such as we did planting vegetables, and learning together things that we cannot learn elsewhere, it makes it all worthwhile.
And so we will embrace our scruffy vegetable pots and plot, and embrace new ways of making sure we grow what we need, in the right way for us. I do not think the potatoes mind that they are grown or not grown in perfectly regimented rows, and the tomatoes do not mind that you use shoelaces and twigs from the garden to support their growth rather than perfectly colour-coded supports.
That is our choice, and right now we also don't know if we are right or wrong. We will do everything we can to care for our new friends in the soil, but also acknowledge that slice of luck that we might need. Because in the end, the reason we can't answer questions about how water is made, is because like many things in nature, it is way bigger and more powerful than us all.