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.

To weed? Or not to weed?

 
 At this time of the year weeds can become a bit of an obsession for me. In the warm, wet weather of spring they will sprout seemingly overnight in my beds and borders, and their triffid-like growth threatens to rapidly engulf whatever space they can. 

One of the ultimate skills of a gardener must be our finely-honed weed identification skills. After a few years of sifting through them, I feel I now have the innate ability to spot the difference between a seedling of a plant I want, and one that I don’t. This uncanny knack rests on a knife-edge definition of what a weed is. Most of us would agree that a weed is just a plant in the wrong place. 

Some doubt begins to creep into my mind when I begin to consider that every plant has an ecological value, and if it has chosen this as the ideal spot to grow, can it really be in the wrong place? Who am I to rule this herbaceous border like an iron-fisted dictator, eradicating any of the diverse species that choose to make it their home. What many gardeners may consider a weed could be seen by a bee as a source of nectar, by a bird as nesting material or by a butterfly as the ideal food source for their caterpillars. Would I look at dandelions and daisies with the same disdain perhaps if they were hard to grow or exotic; is it just their familiarity and ease of cultivation which breeds contempt? Some people spend their lives trying to rid their gardens of crocosmia, yet others would love to have the same problem. 

Many of these plants which have been branded by the gardening fraternity as weeds are also included into the group of horticultural hooligans known as ‘invasive species’. I sometimes find this title to be a bit of a misnomer. When I see a plant that I want successfully establishing, spreading and colonising an area, I like to think that it has found its ecological ‘niche’. A plant that is able to do this more rapidly than anything else is then perhaps just telling us of the instability of an ecosystem where a large niche is currently being under-utilised. 

There seems to be a commonly held fantasy of a ‘climax community’, that all plants aspire to be part of, where population size and species mix never fluctuates, and everything lives in perfect harmony for eternity. Unfortunately this utopian dream has never been true, and the opportunistic nature of most organisms instills in everything the desire to proliferate. 

Sometimes I wonder if I shouldn’t just learn to appreciate the bold, pioneering nature of these ‘weeds’ a bit more and maybe encourage some of the more attractive candidates to reach maturity so that they can fulfil their ultimate purpose, and not leave a gaping hole waiting to be filled in the ecosystem of my border.

I Garden

  
There is a famous essay in the world of economics, called ‘I Pencil.’ It is written from the viewpoint of the pencil. He describes how he came into being, and the many processes involved in his creation. It surmises that despite being a fairly simple item, there is a huge complexity in its creation, and no single person has the many skills that would be required to make a pencil from start to finish. Despite this, they are made in their thousands, and remain relatively cheap. This essay and its message have long been seen as an explanation and justification of how capitalism works.

Personally, I am not all that into ‘isms’. I think ideologies are near impossible to apply to the chaotic and random nature of ‘real life’, and the only ‘ism’ I really subscribe to is that of pragmatism. After recently re-reading this essay, I was struck by the many parallels it has with the creation of a garden. 

In the creation of a garden there are a huge number of people involved. For example, in the garden that I take care of the owners discussed with the designers how they would like the garden to look. They worked with a team to create plans for the garden. These plans needed a large team of contractors with a wide set of skills to execute. The materials needed be delivered to site by skilled HGV drivers, from materials merchants who had in turn sourced the raw materials from quarrymen, stone masons and saw mills. Even once all of the ‘hard’ elements were constructed, the garden still needed to be filled with plants. The chain involved in getting plants to market can be long one. From the plant collectors, who hunt down new and interesting plants to bring into cultivation. Plant breeders will select the best cultivars. Propagators then increase the stocks of a plant and pass the young plants on to growers who will carefully nurture them until they reach a saleable size and then finally they arrive at the retail nursery where they must be cared for until they are sold, and eventually are planted into the garden. When we look at a much simpler model, like my own back garden, where I act in multiple roles as client, designer and contractor, there is still a huge chain of people involved in the creation, distribution and sale of the many different materials nessecary to make the garden. 

So we come to my role, right at the end of the process. As the gardener, I am only involved in the final composition of the piece. I like to think of my role as the conductor of the Orchestra, ensuring the correct balance of all of the parts is achieved, and maintaining the dynamic equilibrium so that the correct elements occur at the right time, appearing and receding just as they are meant to. I have a great privilege and when I look around me at the garden I feel happy in the realisation that I am actually the person who gets to enjoy it probably more than anyone else. My role dictates that much of my time is spent actively at work within the garden, weeding, trimming and taking care of the plants; but this is only a small part of the whole, so when I look up from weeding the small patch I have focused on for the day, I am still able to see the whole garden with a fresh pair of eyes, as if seeing it for the first time. 

Considering the sheer complexity of the many processes involved in the making of a garden helps me to realise how any garden can never be the product of just one person, and to look out on it and lay claim what is happening would be both incredibly selfish and egotistical of myself. 

I did not do this, I am doing it, and thankfully, it will never be done.

A Seedy habit

  I have a confession. I have an addiction; to buying seeds. 

This time of year is the worst for a seed addict. With nothing much growing in the garden and only a few jobs requiring my attention when the weather permits, I find myself cooped up in the house with a fresh set of seed catalogues from my dealers to tempt me and I inevitably become stuck in the same cycle. 

You see, my ideas are much, much bigger than my plot. My curiosity for growing new plants is almost endless, so every item in those glossy pages catches hold of my interest, and I am unfortunately all too easily seduced into purchasing just another packet. 

Perhaps it is the excitement that got me hooked. Few jobs in the garden are charged with the same emotions as seed sowing. The anticipation I feel when I receive a new packet, the excitement as the seed is carefully sown, the joy as the first shoots appear, the nerves as they are carefully pricked out and weened to adulthood, then the pride you are filled with as they finally develop to maturity, fulfilling their potential and filling your garden with their bounty.

My collection is burgeoning. A tin dedicated to their storage was soon filled, so I upgraded to a shoe-box, which inevitably wasn’t enough and I now have a bag-for-life bursting full of potential life. Not content with just one variety of tomatoes, I find myself wanting to compare several to see which is my favourite. This would not ordinarily be a problem, but when it begins to extend to several varieties of peas, beans and radishes, I begin to wonder ‘where on earth will I sow them all?’ And ‘how will I find the time to take care of them?’ I have an allotment, a veg patch in the garden I take care of, and a few spots in my own minuscule back garden, but even these combined are still nowhere near big enough to grow everything I would like to. 

I have tried to give it up. I reason with myself that I now have more seeds than I will ever need. My collection is starting to rival a seed bank, but I still find it so hard to resist. I have tried saving seeds from my own plants, thus hopefully cutting out the charm of the salesperson and their innate ability to convince me that I need to grow this new tomato or unusual squash, but it has been to no avail. As soon as I hear that catalogue coming through the door I am once again salivating in anticipation, like one of Pavlov’s dogs, ready to get my fix.

Chopping wood

 There is an old Zen Buddhist saying: “Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.” This has been around for millennia, but I have found myself returning to consider its meaning more regularly during the past few weeks. My recent change of job has opened up a whole world of wood chopping which I was almost ignorant to before. My shed is surrounded by large stacks of logs from trees which were felled a few years ago when the garden was redesigned. Along one side of my shed is a large log store split into two bays. The house has open fires and a log burner so I took it upon myself to ensure there was a plentiful supply of fuel to keep the place toasty during the cold winter months.

During the quieter months of winter and early spring, the processing of these big logs into firewood is a great way to keep active and stay warm. Every morning, after arriving at work, I take my axe to the log stack to limber up for the day by chopping a few logs. The oldest, driest wood was chopped first and moved to stores nearest the house for burning, while I set about the younger, fresher, and damper wood, which would need to be dried in the stores for at least a year before it would be ready to burn. As I began to chop away at the logs I could feel my confidence build, and although I had little previous experience using an axe, I quickly learnt the most efficient ways to split the timber. Before long the wood began to stack up, and just before Christmas I managed to completely fill the stores.

The process of splitting a log can be used as a form of meditation. There is a strong need to be present in the moment and focus entirely on the task. You feel the tension build in the arms, like a coiled spring, as the axe is raised, and need to focus completely on the log as the cold steel of the axe is brought crashing down if you are to successfully cleave it in two. To lose focus at any point would make the task tiring and inefficient and even more importantly dangerous. For the Zen monks that originally came up with this saying, the wood itself would have been essential for providing fuel for the temple. Despite their devotion to quiet, sitting meditation, it would also still be necessary for a monk to complete the seemingly mundane, but essential tasks of life, such as chopping wood and fetching water. I think that the saying implies that by going about our everyday activities with the same focussed state of mind as we would in a more traditional meditation, that our everyday lives can also be a source of enlightenment and are able to give us the sense of fulfilment and satisfaction that we all seek.

The arrival of Winter

Winter took a long time to arrive this year. A mild wet Autumn extended all the way through December and even in the first weeks of January a few lonely leaves still clung obstinately to the tips of the oak trees branches. 
Then one night in mid January it finally came. Jack Frost’s icy grip took hold and the plants finally began to slip into their winter slumber. The garden reached the low-tide point of the year. 
The sky is grey like lead, and it seems as though all the colour has been sucked out of the scene. Even the bright green laurel hedges appear pallid in the cold.

The summer frock of leaves has been lost and plants stand bare and skeletal. The hardiest take on a new dimension as their outlines are highlighted by a hoar frost. Even sound seems to have left the garden, as the chatter of birds dampens to an eerie silence, with only a few robins brave enough to venture out from the nest in their hi-vis jackets.

There is little to do with the borders when it is this cold. The herbaceous plants are dormant, and are best left now until growth starts again in the spring. The sodden lawn could easily be damaged if you stray from the solid footing of the path. So the best thing we can do is take stock. It’s a great time to make a note of any gaps and consider what could make the most of that space next season. It’s time to retire to the (relative) warmth of the shed to sharpen tools and make a wish list of plants for the spring.

It’s a great time to work with the trees. They give a natural shelter and their protection seems to add a couple of degrees in the winter. It’s the perfect time for apple pruning; reducing the sappy growth of last year back to the short, fat flowering buds, full of the promise of blossom. I also love thinning the stands of hazel coppice, creating natural stakes that will support the vigorous Spring growth. 

Any work in the garden needs to be vigorous to generate heat and keep the cold at bay. Once the extremities get cold it is almost impossible to warm them up again, so the only sensible policy is to keep the toes and fingers well wrapped with thick socks and gloves until they can be warmed by a fire. 

With so many plants reluctant to make a display, centre stage is occupied by only the hardiest of plants, a such as hellebores and snowdrops who will brave even the coldest weather to show their best. On the few bright, crisp days we are blessed with shrubs such as Witch Hazel, Viburnum, honeysuckles and Sarcococca are conspicuous by the heady aromas that fill the air around the as the thin sunlight begins to warm their branches. Anything that is prepared to flower in these short dark and cold days must do its best to attract what few insects are around to do the vital work of pollination. 
  

Other people’s tools

 One of the aspects that distinguishes humans from other animals is our widespread use of tools. Our lives are filled with them, and they facilitate our activities, enabling us to do our jobs as efficiently and effectively as possible. I have a job which uses its own particular set of tools, most of which relate to cutting something specific, but would be near useless for another task. The tool itself prescribes the exact method of how a task can be done by how it will be used.

For the past few weeks, I have been working in our small hazel coppice. The straight stems of hazel are ideal for plant stakes, so once all of the stems were cut I set about preparing them. The ideal tool for this task was my ‘bill hook’. As I worked through the pile of branches I’d created I marvelled at how beautifully efficient and well-designed this tool was, the curved blade skimming down the stem, deftly removing all the small side branches.

I remembered how it was given to me by a friend several years ago. We had worked together before he moved to Australia with his girlfriend. We hadn’t been in contact since then, but using the tool he’d given me invoked many memories of him. The way it made short work of the branches reminded me of his impressive work ethic and dedication and I felt that I should embody that same attitude as I worked with the gift he had given me. 

I was struck by the idea that some small residue of ourselves can be left in these objects. I wondered if the way I worked was influenced not only by my memories of my friend, but also possibly by the tool itself and the memory it held of everyone who had ever worked with it; how the leather handle had taken the form of the hands of all its previous users and how every nick and scrape along the blade told a tale of its past. 

I like to think that as I get older I will be able to bequeath some of my tools to my friends, colleagues and children. I hope as they use them they remember me, and think about how I might have set about the task, and through them, and my tools, I may achieve some peculiar form of immortality.