Growing My Own


Most of us who garden will have tried growing vegetables at some point. I think the idea of growing your own food must appeal to one of our most deep seated and basic human desires and needs; hunger. 

Our evolution from nomadic people, following animals, in small hunter-gatherer communities, towards settled, domesticated and much more complex agrarian societies, has caused a massive shift in our psychology. In the post-industrial age where we have become more and more divorced from the fundamental necessities of living, and we tend to experience much of the world vicariously through the TV, radio or Internet, it is fascinating that the ‘hobby’ of growing your own vegetables has experienced a bit of a resurgence. 

Once you’ve tried it, and have been bitten by the bug it will become obvious why it is so popular. It appeals to all of the senses and has far reaching benefits for both the body and mind. The many physical tasks needed to cultivate a suitable area gives me a chance to get exercise in the fresh air. It benefits the environment both by reducing the fossil fuels used transporting veg, but also by the use of less intensive, and more ‘organic’ approaches to growing vegetables.  

It provides me with a plentiful supply of fresh seasonal fruits and vegetables. In an era when it is easy to become reliant on supermarkets, we often become divorced from the natural cycle of the year, and get used to having everything available at any time. 

Growing your own allows you to grow some items which won’t appear on supermarket shelves. A quick stroll through my allotment site is like a walk around the world. My plot neighbours plots from Hong Kong, Korea, Malaysia, India, Trinidad, Greece and Iran (not to mention the chaps from Ireland and Durham.) Each one of us brings our own unique food culture, growing a bespoke selection of varieties which appeal to our own palates. Many of the items we grow are either expensive, or unavailable in the nearby shops. Sometimes the varieties available to home growers have better flavour, unique disease resistance or even a higher nutritional content than those bred for commercial growing where visual appeal and shelf-life take priority. 

I think it is also beneficial for our minds as the process of growing and nurturing seems to me to be saturated with positivity. I am filled with an immense sense of satisfaction when I am able to cook a meal using ingredients I have cultivated myself. Perhaps it is a unique combination of variety with soil type and conditions that makes it taste better. Perhaps it is because it has been picked at the peak of ripeness and served fresh from the field within hours. Or perhaps it is because this plant is unlike those others mass produced in a field full of lookalikes. This one has received hours of nurturing, care and attention from my hands as I have raised it from the tiniest seedling to maturity and it will finally be able to fulfill its ultimate goal and destiny, as part of my dinner.

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The garden starts to blossom

  
From April into May the garden changes daily. It can be hard to predict what it will look like in a weeks time while everything is growing at such an incredible rate. The weather is still very changeable and, even in a garden you’ve known for years, the slight seasonal variations can cause things to flower at slightly different times each year, creating a new picture, full of unique plant combinations. 

Few plants can do the horticultural fireworks better than a flowering tree. Most of the blossom we see in UK gardens will be from cherry, pear or apple trees, although hawthorn and rowan also give an impressive display. Members of the cherry family such as prunus cerasifera ‘Nigra’ (the cherry plum) can often be the first to bloom and some will be flowering by early March, though most ornamental varieties like prunus serrulata (the Japanese cherry or Sakura) will flower during April and May. Cherry blossom has gained a mythical status in Japan. At this time of year many people picnic out under the bloom covered branches of the revered trees, laden with flowers in a tradition known as hanami. The intensity, and beauty of the blossom is seen as a metaphor for life itself, so to spend some time admiring the display, and considering its temporary nature, is an opportunity to reflect on our own impermanence. In the UK we have taken ornamental cherries to our hearts, and they commonly line our streets, filling the air with a blizzard of their delicate petals in the slightest gust of wind. 

Apples and pears are probably even more commonly seen in Britain and few back gardens in the UK will be without one. In Hampstead Garden Suburb in North London, the houses were built to try and demonstrate an example of ideal housing for the working classes and one of the planning conditions specified was that every garden should have at least two fruit trees. At this time of the year the area is awash with blossom. A recent surveys of the apple trees, in 2009, identified forty five varieties planted. The majority were common varieties such as ‘James Greive’ or ‘Bramley Seedling’ but many were older, and less common trees such as ‘Peasgood’s Nonsuch’ or ‘Gascoyne Scarlet’. Apples are deeply embedded into our culture and it is thought that during the 19th century there may have been 6000 unique cultivars of malus domestica being grown in the UK. It is incredible to consider that all of these are derived from a single wild ancestor, probably malus pumila from Asia (not malus sylvestris – the crab apple, as is often thought,) which has, over many millennia, been selected, bred and improved alongside the development of civilisation. It is no wonder then that this humble fruit became one of the central characters in the story of the garden of Eden. 

For myself, when I see the apple blossom it always conjures up memories of my wedding anniversary. My wife and I got married on the 2nd of May, so we were able to use apple blossom for our confetti and whenever I see an apple in bloom I am taken back to my happy memories and the feelings from the day. Perhaps we should initiate our own version of the hanami tradition, walking amongst our abundant apple orchards and picnicking underneath their boughs heaving with blossom to hopefully ensure a prosperous harvest and long life for both ourselves and the trees.

I think I might be a narcissist 

  

  
Few plants can induce a smile from me quite like a daffodil. I don’t think I am alone when I say that their bright, cheerful flowers can lift my spirit, even on a dull overcast day, and I always see them as a sign of the return of spring, and the longer, warmer days to come. 

Originating from the Mediterranean, they have a long history of cultivation and were well known to the ancient Greeks. Their Latin name, Narcissus, comes from the Greek myth of a youth who, so infatuated by his own reflection, was turned into a flower. It perfectly describes how they would often have been discovered, on the banks of steams and pools, starting at their own reflection in the water. 

We have taken these plants to our heart and after many years of breeding and hybridisation of the original species we have produced many thousands of cultivated varieties, which are now grown almost anywhere they will survive. Even our cold, damp soils have been adopted as home and in some of the Western counties, with the help of benevolent farmers and landowners, they have flourished and successfully naturalised, forming great swathes of gold in the spring which would have provided a useful, early, ‘cash-crop’ for the locals. 

The daffodil world is full of great varieties; from the earliest types such as ‘February Gold’ and ‘Rijnveld Early Sensation’, which can start to flower just after Christmas in a mild year, through to the bicolour flowers of narcissus pseudonarcissus, which are seen naturalised throughout the Uk. There are blousy double and split-corona types with ruffles of petals like a country-show rosette like ‘Delnashaugh’ or large flowers in purest white like ‘Mount hood’. Then there are the smaller but highly-scented poeticus (pheasant-eye) and tazetta types, such as ‘Paperwhite’, that arrive in the late spring so they coincide with the blossom of cherry and pear trees, or the tiny, delicate, almost flat, flowers of ‘Sun Disc’, or the peculiar conical flower of the hoop-petticoat daffodils such as ‘Spoirot’ and ‘Oxford Gold’. 

  One of my absolute favourites must be ‘Thalia’, a white, smaller-flowered type with several blooms per stem and a delicate fragrance. They have a grace and elegance that is missing from their more bolshy, early-flowering brethren. With the right selection of varieties, the daffodil season can last from January right through until late April. 

Perhaps it is myself who is being slightly narcissistic. By giving these flowers such human qualities of joy and optimism I am actually reflecting what emotions I wish to feel on to them. The daffodil itself is merely doing what comes naturally. Its bright yellow, trumpet is little more than a funnel to direct a bee to its nectar, encouraging it to do all the hard work of spreading its pollen, and hopefully create the next generation of daffodils, nudging its range ever so slightly further.  

Springing Forward

  
Perhaps it is just psychological, but the arrival of British summer time last weekend, and the subsequent lengthening of the evenings, has brought about a change in the garden. For weeks we have felt the pressure building, waiting for the opportunity to burst forth, and the (seemingly) longer days combined with (relatively) mild temperatures has brought the garden on in leaps and bounds.

March is a pivotal point of the year. When it starts we are still just emerging from the winter, but as it ends we are clearly entering a new phase of the year and the mild, showery weather is perfect for kick-starting dormant plants into action. We are now at the top of the hill, and the brakes have been released, sending us careering headlong into the spring at a frantic pace.

The trumpets of daffodils raise their song to a triumphant fanfare, heralding the arrival of life once again in the garden. The branches are decorated with swollen, green buds, ready to explode with life and turn the bare stems verdant almost overnight. The hedgerows are transformed in to highways full of birds, desperately trying to collect nesting material to construct a home fit to raise their young in. The pond is filled with the chorus of frogs, and the spawn begins to multiply like pearls of bubble bath on the margins of the water.

Work in the garden steps up a gear and the accelerated growth cycle means weeding can become a daily chore. The grass, which has seemed decidedly nonchalant for the past few months, now starts to growing at an astonishing rate and will need regularly ‘grazing’ with the mower to prevent it reverting to a meadow. The kitchen garden becomes a hive of activity as the cycle of sowing and planting speeds up and early crops of salad, peas and broad beans get tantalisingly closer. 

The feeling of new life and new beginnings is bristling throughout the garden. Like a butterfly emerging from its cocoon, the garden is changing daily, and slowly unfurling its wings, ready to take flight.

Whilst I am filled with a sense of optimism and positivity at the return of life to the garden again, and in amazement at this ‘reawakening’, I also begin to feel a bit anxious and a slight hint of panic begins to set in. The initial excitement will pass and the critical timing of everything will again take precedence – Have I sown this too early? Is it too late to plant this? Have these plants been hardened off enough to plant out? Many of the young, sap-filled shoots will not make it to adulthood as they are devoured by hordes of ravenous gastropods, or sucked dry by vampire-like aphids. My ‘to-do’ list starts extends much faster at the bottom than jobs can be ticked off the top, and it is inevitable that, if things are to be done in order of priority, a few of these may end up waiting until the pace has slowed somewhat. For one moment everything is full with promise, but I am filled with a sense that this just the calm before the storm. 

The old oak tree stands calm and sentinel over the garden, allowing all of the minor players in this drama their moment in the limelight before it will don its summer coat and cast everything within the reach of its gnarled and meandering limbs deep into the shade.