Grow your own

My food growing adventures started back in 2008 when we got to the top of the very long waiting list for an allotment from our local council.

Davies, Scarlett and I went to the office, signed the paperwork, paid our first years rent (About £50 if I recall correctly) and collected the key to the main gate.

We drove straight to the plots, about two miles from our house and roamed through the mostly beautifully tended and productive plots to find ours which was furthest away from the gate and quite overgrown. Subsequent chatting with neighbouring plot holders meant we learned that we had taken over the previously very loved plot of an elderly gentleman who had fallen into ill health for a while before dying so his plot had been left for a whole season or more without being tended.

I learned so much from that plot and it was absolutely a big inspiration for our year of WWOOFing and subsequent crofting adventures on Rum.

During our WWOOFing travels we stayed with people who were amazing produce growers. Some on massive scales growing to supply others with veg boxes, some fully self sufficient for their communities and families, some still in the early stages of setting up abundant gardens and a whole mix of different challenges in terms of soil quality, accessibility, water, climate and weather conditions, sloping or flat land and orientation of plot creating shade, sun and shelter. I think I learned at least one thing that has stayed with me from every single hosts whether it was tips on sowing distance from Lisa in Wales who used her own hands and feet to measure rather than a tape measure because ‘I’ve always got my hands and feet with me!’, pest prevention from Pete in Somerset who encouraged weeing around his perimeter fence to deter deer, amazing planning and crop rotation from Wilf and Matt in Durham or permaculture plot design and forest gardening from Chris in Devon.

Despite best efforts (and bloody hell there was a whole lot of effort!) although we created a lot of infrastructure for growing on the croft with 20 raised beds in a ‘walled garden’, a massive soft fruit cage, a huge strawberry garden, a herb spiral and a polytunnel my growing on Rum was never a huge success. The start of the season was so late, often with frosts into May, followed swiftly by midges during the time you most needed to be outside tending crops. The soil quality was poor despite best efforts at improvement with livestock aerating and treading in manure, seaweed mulch, comfrey feed, chicken and duck pest control….Really the only crops that I triumphed with were soft fruits like currants, strawberries and raspberries, salad leaves grown in containers and peas. I seem to be good at growing strawberries and peas regardless of where I am. I guess we all have that one crop we fluke. I’ve yet to grow a leek beyond spring onion size though.

Anyway, back to the present day. Where I hope the cumulative knowledge and all those who have taught me, my own experience in the very easy growing and the very challenging growing conditions and proximity to more resources yet a more pressing need to ensure we have at least some fresh produce in the impending food crisis during / post corona virus may aid my green fingers a little.

I picked up a mini greenhouse in the end of season sales last year and stashed it ready for this spring. I had some seeds already and had placed an online order for more just before the lockdown hit so received those in the post pretty much on time for the start of the growing season. I had some compost bought from our chicken feed supplier already and a few seed trays purchased in another end of season sale last year. Instead of stockpiling loo rolls I’ve been saving the empty cardboard tubes for weeks ready to make little seed pots with (the others are very helpful indeed at leaving them in the bathrooms for me…..).

I didn’t have a watering can but I did have a small pin to pierce holes in the lids of various milk cartons means I was able to make a selection of small and large watering cans.

Once we realised our spare bedroom would not in fact be hosting our planned influx of house guests (sob) this spring I set up a whole load more sown seeds all along the large south facing window in an array of makeshift seed trays including plastic tubs and trays, cardboard containers.

And just like despite the drama / crisis / horror story unravelling and evolving before our eyes on the TV, in the papers and on our phone news feeds the sun rises and sets, the moon continues through her phases, the tides roll in and out and the birds have begun to sing, pair up and gather nesting materials so the seedlings have begun to burst through the surface of the soil.

Which of course means that just like any proud witness to new life we have been casting around in the realisation that they will carry on growing and need a bigger home than their tiny loo roll tubes.

We had already agreed with our landlord last year that we could create some vegetable beds so we have built a couple of beds with some scrap wood, swapped some eggs for rotted horse poo with a neighbour, borrowed a spade (because all of our tools are on Rum, where we can’t get them having now missed two planned visits due to lock down) and are going to lift the lawn up. Ideally we would have filled the raised beds with compost – that is not feasible to get hold of in these weird times so we figure growing direct into the ground (we’ll be slicing and rolling the grass to lift it rather than digging) and then filling the beds at some future point is the way to go.

We still have another couple of weeks to be certain of being frost free so in the interim we are encouraging the chickens to feed and scratch around on the beds. We have some netting on order to prevent them doing that once we are ready to plant out.

The strawberries that we bought over from Rum last year have taken well and spread out lots in the first bed we constructed here last summer. I have had them covered with plastic over winter and although there are no flowers yet there are some very healthy looking leafy plants.

It will be really interesting to see how we do in this, our third growing space.

Small Things

I’m reading a book at the moment. It’s lovely, beautifully written and filled with joys and sorrows. It’s a story of ordinary people and their ordinary lives, and deaths – both similar to and utterly different to every single story every one of us has to tell / is living through.

Lots of us are finding meaning in things we would not usually discover at the moment, maybe we are seeking something we don’t usually look for? Maybe there is a new quiet, a special hush which means we can see more, hear more, feel more with so many fewer distractions. I’ve read stories (some later proven not true) of wildlife returning to places previously too busy with humans. I’ve seen photos of goats in playgrounds, dolphins in canals, ducks in water fountains, wild boar playing with their young in the middle of a deserted high street.

I’ve found articles online talking about earth quakes felt many miles away from where they normally would be because our walls are not shuddering with constant lorry traffic passing by. I have Seen maps of reduced pollution over cities, looked up and seen skies free from jet contrails.

There is suddenly greater poetry in song lyrics, in dystopian novels, in prophesies of doom. Those of us already blessed / cursed with seeing meaning in everything are seeing it even clearer, hearing it even louder. Looking for silver linings, wishing on rainbows.

I said to a friend recently that Coronavirus is a bit like Christmas. It’s bringing out the best and the worst in people. For every heart warming hand crayoned wonky rainbow picture a child is sellotaping to their window, for every pair of hands clapping for the NHS at 8pm on a Thursday, for every single one of the tens of thousands of people printing off the words to ‘You are my Sunshine’ and joining in with a remotely scattered choir conducted by Gareth Malone via youtube there is a child who’s only respite from a cold house, an empty belly, a loveless existence was their day at school. Or a scared woman suffering at the hands of a violent partner, even more angry now at the lack of open pubs and Saturday football. Some of us have lost our only glimmers of sunshine and hope.

People are still sick, dying, needing medical care for all the reasons other than COVID 19. People are still unemployed, poor, hungry, homeless even without lockdown related restrictions. People are still despairing, anxious, depressed, suicidal just as they were before this global pandemic gave everybody something to lay awake fretting about at 4am. There is no comfort or ease of those suffering from now being in the company of the whole of society with their collective suffering too.

Back to that book I mentioned. A sentence from it this morning made stop. re-read it several times. Take a photo of it.

Our grieving was an exchange of cakes through the winter because sometimes the only things you can do in response to big things are small things.
There aren’t enough big things. (from The Other Half of Augusta Hope by Joanna Glen)

Everything is so overwhelming just now. It’s all Big Things. Big scary things, with names we don’t fully understand and outcomes even our most optimistic hopes for are still unspeakable in their horror. And there is so, so little we can do about it.

We all know that the only thing certain in life is death. We all know that despite our best laid plans, intentions, meticulously detailed calendars and organised lists none of us really know what the future ever holds. I can have an idea of what next Tuesday afternoon might hold for me – I can plan a menu, schedule a reminder for a TV show, organise a phone chat or a video call with a friend. I can look at the weather forecast and even look out an outfit to imagine myself in. But the reality is that even the fleeting thought going through my mind just now of putting the kettle on for another cup of tea and re-reading this post before I press send may not actually come to fruition.

But we like to think we have a grip on things. I have lived a life filled with unconventional choices and twisty-turny saying yes to opportunities, finding myself somewhere completely different to where I thought I was setting out to and have loved it. The unexpected, the spontaneous, the tossing a coin to decide whether to turn left or right next. But it was always me tossing that coin and although if I think about it too hard for too long I know I don’t really hold any real control over my destiny, it is in making lots of small decisions and doing lots of small things that we are able to cope with the big things.

The same is true in these dark times I think. I have walked through the light living a charmed life. I am ever optimistic and filled with sunshine but even I am struggling with this one. I think I’m getting a real taste of what it must be like not to be me. Not to be able to shrug off the sadness and the worry. To find small joy in a seedling poking it’s head through the soil but not have the feeling of dread pushed away by it.

My way of coping has been to try and face it all as head on as I can. I’ve actually compiled mental lists of the very worst that could happen. They are dreadful lists and I wouldn’t write them down or speak them aloud. But they have allowed me to ensure I am as prepared as I can be for them.

Living far from loved family and friends for nearly a decade has meant that I always say goodbye knowing it may actually be goodbye. That I try not to leave things left unsaid just in case there is not a later. That if I have any questions or doubts I attempt to ask them and appease them. Those who I am not able to spend real life time with know how much I love them, how important they are to me and how much I value them in my life because I’ve told them, very clearly.

Those who I see often but am apart from now, or should have been spending time with I’m aiming for virtual company with. Zoom chats, video calls, regular messages and check-ins.

Our home life has not changed massively. Education for us has always happened from home. Davies and Scarlett have conducted the majority of their social lives online anyway. For nearly a decade we have lived remotely and at the mercy of poor weather meaning we need to have a good store cupboard of food and don’t always have fresh fruit and vegetables unless we grow it ourselves. I already had this years seedlings sown and our chickens were already providing our eggs. Our ‘daily exercise’ was always walks or swims. We never watched Eastenders anyway!

We have always had an ongoing emergency type plan of who Davies and Scarlett could call on if something happened to us. I updated it recently having realised that they are no longer dependant children and in light of my ‘name your worst fear’ list I have sorted out our paperwork files, shared all the information about the admin side of of lives and created documents to guide any of the other three through the things that previously I used to do and ensured that no single one of us is in fact indispensable on a practical or administrative level at least.

Then I have turned to the small things; giving some of the egg surplus to the neighbours, signing up for the local community phone line to take calls from those needing food supplies, medication and firewood, or just a friendly chat, I’m still doing at least one shift a week for the mental health helpline too and I am about to start doing a weekly video chat hosting for people about Home Education locally as well. These are the small things for others but also for me. To give me a sense of purpose, of having done something, *anything* each day.

I’ve stopped swimming for now. During the colder months we would drive to the loch for my swims so I could get home and in the shower /warm quicker. It is non-essential travel for sure. Although I am very safety conscious it felt just a risky enough activity to not be a sensible thing to be doing. I miss it massively. I am walking down to the loch every day and have been paddling instead, even submersion to knee deep is a highlight of my day.

Ady is our key worker. He is now donning protective masks, gloves and aprons for every client he visits. It is a very strange time to have joined the NHS and been thrown into the middle of the biggest challenge it has likely ever faced. He is in a peripheral role to the big fight against Coronavirus but certainly noting the effects on his clients and the world around them.

This feels a strange post for this blog really. But these are strange times and I want to record them. I want to be honest, candid and myself (even if there are bits of myself I am not entirely recognising just now). It would be stranger still not to talk about it I think.

I will post soon about more small things – I have tales of the seedlings to share, plans for raised beds, a yen for a cob pizza oven in the garden. Rum is calling with belongings I am suddenly finding a need for stuck there and friends I want to catch up with.

It feels odd to be wondering so much more than we are wandering just now.

And finally, that cup of tea I could not be entirely sure of? It’s here now beside me on the table. I’m about to press send….