growing

magical places

potato patch

It looks a bit scruffy, doesn’t it? This corner of our potato patch, the leaves yellowing and the stems flopping every which way. It doesn’t look like something you might love.

Hiding beneath the soil are Pink Fir Apple potatoes; that unpromising foliage is like the X on a treasure map. I will never get tired of pushing my hands into the soil, tugging cool, knobbly potatoes away from the roots of the plants and heaping them like bounty on the grass.

pink fir apples

I dug Pink Fir Apples from this patch to take to my parents the last time I visited them in their home. My dad was ill, dying in fact, and  potatoes from this earth were part of the last meal he ever ate. I steamed them until they were just tender and sliced them onto a side plate, tiny to match his appetite. I liked the way the knife resisted for a second before it slid through the potato flesh.

‘He doesn’t eat much now,’ my mum said. I cut half a salmon fillet into little cubes and set them beside a tiny heap of runner beans, also from the allotment. Dad wasn’t speaking much either by this time but he mumbled: ‘This is lovely,’ and asked for a second helping. I made it even tinier than the first. He ate it all and had two grapes for dessert. Hours later, his swallowing reflex packed up.

For as long as I live, this corner of our allotment will be inscribed with the memory of digging those last potatoes for Dad.

allotment viewIt isn’t the only memory that lives here. There’s the bed I weeded with a deeply distressed friend, who slowly relaxed as she cleared the ground of dandelion, bittercress and thistle. There’s the millpond at the bottom of the site where the herons nested this year; the Bramley apple tree our children gave us the first Christmas we had this plot, and all the beds that Julian and I have dug as we slowly learn how to make this land productive.

This is how it goes when you care for a patch of earth. You and the land become knitted together in a sharing of memory, the creation of what Helen Macdonald, in one of my favourite chapters of her book H is for Hawk, calls a ‘magical place’. Writing of the hill where she has been flying her goshawk she says, ‘I don’t own this land. I’ve only got permission to fly here. but in walking it over and over again and paying it the greatest attention I’ve made it mine.’

I don’t own this allotment. I’ve only got permission to grow food here. But in coming here day after day, learning how to manage weeds, save seed, care for the soil, I have made it mine.

If somebody should force me to give it up, it would be like having a part of myself ripped away. My friend Sara, grower and activist extraordinaire, has written movingly of this exact experience, the severe distress of having her allotment tarmacked over to make way for a bus route. It’s happening up and down the country as hard-pressed councils release more and more land for development.

Sometimes I wonder how different things would be if the people who make decisions for us, day in and day out, all knew what it meant to create magical places.

Life talk

I’ve been spending time lately with someone who is dying. The day I thought I might see him for the last time I went for a run beside the stream near our house. I was trying to work out what to say. Is it better to plan, or to wait and see what comes in the moment?

I was running past a bridge and the sun was falling through the trees and splashing on the path. You should talk to him about life, I thought. Tell him how grateful you are for his gift, the one that made it possible for you to live here. Tell him about the tomatoes slowly ripening in the allotment polytunnel, and the way the light is lying in a shaft across that millstone.

millefleur

I ran beside a stretch of water that is kept for wildfowl. The moorhens’ nest had gone, and the mallards dozing in the early morning sun didn’t even twitch as I went by. You should talk much more about life, I thought. You should talk about the heron flying across the reddening sky last night, and the earthworms that show that the allotment soil is getting healthier, and the fox that appeared out of nowhere after you had put manure around the raspberries and stared you straight in the eyes, as if daring you to try and scare it away.

chocolate cherry

I’m picking up the blog again because I’ve realised that the most important things in life only become visible when you pay proper attention. I’ve been trying to develop that habit of paying attention, especially on the allotment where there is so much to learn, not just about how to grow food but also about the myriad life forms that share the plot with us. It’s a hard habit to embed when so many things clamour for an instant response, when so much seems urgent, pressing, demanding of haste. I hope that  regular blogging will help.

When I saw my dying friend after the run last week, he asked me the usual things born of a lifetime of good manners. How are you, how are the children, did you have a good journey? I told him we were well, that the journey was long but OK. I told him about the red kite hovering over the M1. His eyes lit up.

on the allotment: June 19

slugs

snail

cucumber seedlings

This week I could complain about the slugs and snails or boast about the cucumber seedlings, but what I would really like to do is celebrate the humble broad bean.

broad beans

Ours were sown in March, so are well behind our neighbour’s crop, which they put in last winter. I think I will try overwintering for next year, as it would be lovely to have some fresh beans right now to smash into crostini toppings or whizz into hummus to go with the plates of salad leaves we are harvesting.

bean flower

However, I love this stage of the broad bean. I have always been fascinated by the idea of a flower that is black and white: so elegant and striking, and so unlikely somehow. But it wasn’t until earlier this year, when I was reading John Clare as part of my degree, that I realised these flowers also have a heavenly scent. Clare (1793-1864) has been one of the great discoveries of my course so far: he’s astonishingly relevant today in his attitude to the environment, and his beautifully observed writing about the natural world around his Northamptonshire village of Helpstone makes me want to rush out into the woods and start looking for birds and flowers.

Here’s the poem that taught me to lean over to smell the broad beans:

The Bean Field

A bean field full in blossom smells as sweet
As Araby, or groves of orange flowers;
Black-eyed and white, and feathered to one’s feet,
How sweet they smell in morning’s dewy hours!
When seething night is left upon the flowers,
And when morn’s bright sun shines o’er the field,
The bean-bloom glitters in the gems o’ showers,
And sweet the fragrance which the union yields
To battered footpaths crossing o’er the fields.

John Clare

I was tying some of the taller plants to canes the other day and realised the leaves are also perfumed: they smell almost the same as the beans and to brush against one is to experience the delicious anticipation of the day when the pods will be ripe enough to open. My mother always froze some and served them up on Christmas Eve, smothered in parsley sauce, the perfect accompaniment to boiled ham. And I shall do the same.

I’m linking up with Soulemama today, and other people around the world who post notes about how their gardens are growing.

How does your garden grow?

Hmm, well in our garden the answer to that question all depends on where you stand. I could place you in front of the bog garden and pond, for example.

pond and bog garden

iris
That might give the impression of a relatively well-tended space. But you would only have to turn through 90 degrees to see this.

hedge clippings
And this.

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Hedge clippings waiting to be disposed of, a flowerbed so full it is amazing everything doesn’t collapse from strangulation.

It’s a similar story, but multiplied to the power of ten, down on the allotment. On the one hand I am ridiculously excited about the number of beans we have been able to plant, and I particularly like having enough room for a ridge support, which makes me feel like a proper veg grower.

beans
On the other hand – this confusion of fruit bushes, comfrey and waist-high grass is more typical of the plot as a whole.

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There have been times this month when I have wondered whether we will ever get on top of everything. Slugs ate all our beetroot and Brussels sprout seedlings. Birds took the first strawberries.

As an allotment newbie I’m learning the importance of perseverance. I’ve put nets on the strawberries and bought some new Brussels sprouts plants – which will also be netted. I’ve taken an old strimmer to be overhauled. It feels like a long slog, getting this plot under control, but every day there are encouragements to spur us on.

gooseberries

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green strawberries

I’m linking up with Soulemama today: I love the idea of gardeners all over the world sharing their plots. What’s more, sometimes Amanda posts a garden cocktail recipe. I’m not normally a great cocktail fan, but she had me at the Rhubarb Collins – another great incentive to persevere with growing.

Allotment secrets

The days are getting longer and I am itching to start our first full growing season on the new allotment. But there’s nothing I can do there yet. Sheffield has escaped flooding this year, thank goodness, but still the ground is waterlogged.

Our allotment: very much a work in progress

Our allotment: very much a work in progress

This week we had some pale sunshine and I wandered down to the site to see what I would find. There’s a strange tension on a warm day in February: I welcome the break in wintry grey and the sudden loudness of birdsong in the woods but I also fear that plants will start to push through too soon. The weather is fickle at this time year and a week of mild temperatures can be followed by iron frosts: last year we had thick snow at the end of March.

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On the allotments there is an air of expectancy. Most of the plots that I first saw bursting with produce back in August are empty now. Here and there I spot a few leeks, some overblown brassicas, but on the whole the beds are a uniform brown, naked beneath the watery sky.

A few are covered in thick layers of manure: it looks as though nothing is happening but I am obsessed with soil these days and I know billions of organisms are active below the surface, pulling down goodness, working fertility, preparing the way for sowing and harvest.

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Every so often the earth offers a glimpse of spring. Crimson rhubarb tips, startling in their brightness; a clump of snowdrops.

DSC_0032Nobody needs a snowdrop on an allotment and it makes me smile to think of someone defiantly planting them on this very practical prospect of rickety sheds, raised beds and upturned wheelbarrows.

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I think there has been some secret revelry while most of us gardeners were curled up in our warm houses. The scarecrows that won a prize in last year’s allotment competition are looking decidedly the worse for wear.

Before ...
Before …
After
After

I’m about to move on when I see something strange is also happening on the scarecrow-plot’s shed. They’ve put a green roof on it, these enterprising allotment neighbours of ours.

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Back in the summer it was thick with grass and wild flowers but now the vegetation has died back a bit to reveal a whole new world, a jumbled-up jungle, a scrambled safari park.

DSC_0023DSC_0024DSC_0025DSC_0026It’s compelling, the liminality of this place, this time of year. The allotments are in the city but barely of it, full of bustle and busyness but keeping their activity silent and hidden. The season is mostly winter but also teetering on the threshold of spring. No wonder there is magic on the shed roof.

What else am I missing, I wonder as I turn for home.

Incredible spreadable

vegetable tourists

‘Vegetable tourists’ in Pollination Street, Todmorden. Picture by Estelle Brown

I’ve got a guest post up today with Veg Plotting, one of my very favourite gardening and growing blogs. I’m writing about how Incredible Edible is spreading across the country and even into other parts of the world as more and more people grasp its potential for transforming the places where they live. Do hop over and have a look, and while you’re there take some time to explore Veg Plotting, which is full of information, advice and fun for anyone who enjoys gardening. Be warned, though – it’s quite addictive! The post is here.

the kale connection

This is the story of a vegetable facing extinction, a wise Scottish pensioner and the power of the Internet.

The vegetable in question: Sutherland kale. Now don’t switch off. Kale is massively underrated and it’s about time it had a revival. A sturdy, practical plant, it keeps on giving all through the winter and still manages to be beautiful.

kale

redbor kale

With its hearty, iron-rich flavour. It’s amazingly good as a pizza topping or combined with eggs to make colcannon, and I just have to try this kale pesto.

Sutherland kale is an extremely rare variety and the story of how it was rescued from oblivion should give hope to all of us who worry about the tendency of global food and seed companies to reduce all our fruit and veg to just a few dominant strains.

You can get it from the excellent Real Seed Catalogue, a small company in Wales that specialises in finding the best possible seed for kitchen gardeners and only sells varieties they have trialled themselves.

The company came across Sutherland kale in 2003, when Vicky Schilling, a customer from Ullapool, sent them a few seeds with a note explaining that she had been given them by Elizabeth Woolcombe, a 93-year-old woman from Sutherland in the Scottish Highlands. Ms Woolcombe knew it as an old variety that used to be popular with crofters.

She, in her turn, had been given some seeds half a century earlier by one Angus Simmonds, when he was researching kale at Edinburgh University.

I first heard about Sutherland kale via the Incredible Edible Todmorden blog. One of the latest Todmorden initiatives is a heritage garden where volunteers will grow rare varieties of plants and ensure they are saved for future generations.

Sutherland kale was an obvious choice for wet and windswept Tod, since it has been shown to withstand 70mph sleet showers, not to mention attacks from aphids, cabbage white caterpillars and ravenous goats.

Just two weeks later, in one of those wonderful cyber-coincidences that sometimes happen, I was reading another favourite blog, the Barefoot Crofter, and spotted a second reference to this very rare variety.

I left a comment expressing my surprise, and before I knew it Jacqueline, the Barefoot Crofter herself, had contacted me via Twitter and offered to send me some seed.

It makes me ridiculously happy to think that the kale plants in our allotment will be connected to the ones on Jacqueline’s croft and, more distantly, to a small group of enlightened people who understood the value of preserving a specific variety of plant at a time when the trend is all towards fewer types that are selected more for their ease of large-scale, commercial production than anything else.

The moral of this story is: small actions count.

The Real Seed people believe Vicky Schilling’s kale plants may have been the last ones in existence until they started growing her seed for sale.

If Vicky had not sent the seeds to the Real Seed Catalogue, Sutherland kale could well be extinct and people like Jacqueline, who farm in extreme weather conditions, would be that much the poorer.

Similarly, if Elizabeth Woolcombe had not faithfully saved seed from her kale, year after year after year, maybe it would have died out all the sooner.

If, like me, you have been involved in the Incredible Edible movement, you will know that one of their mantras is ‘Believe in the power of small actions.’

A movement that began when a few volunteers started planting vegetables in unusual places – think cemetery, bus stop, doctors’ surgery – and putting up revolutionary signs saying ‘help yourself’ is now spreading across the world and making a real difference to the way that people think about land, community and food.

The pins mark the places that are interacting with the Incredible Edible movement

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by news of increasingly erratic weather conditions, global economic crisis and issues like the huge decline in the UK’s endangered wildlife.

What can we as individuals do in the face of all that, we wonder. Well the stories of Sutherland kale and Incredible Edible demonstrate that the only wrong answer to that question is ‘nothing’.

One more home for one more bee: it all adds up

One more home for one more bee in Todmorden: it all adds up. Picture by Estelle Brown

Top picture of kale by Chris Wilcox; redbor kale by Tracie Hall. Used under Creative Commons Licence.

 

garden rage

When I pledged to take our garden more seriously this year, I didn’t expect that I would end up full of anger.

We have had a proper old-fashioned summer here in Sheffield: long days of balmy sunshine and the odd torrential downpour have brought the best growing season for years.

And mostly I have succeeded in my goal of taking good care of our plot. The courgettes have flourished, the rainbow chard has been an endless parade of luminous, candy-shop brightness and for the first time ever we had enough raspberries for a proper pudding.

chard stalks ready for chopping

But when I decided to take more care over the garden it wasn’t just because I wanted us to have more food to eat, although that has been great. It was because I wanted to understand the land better. I was responding in part to the theologian Norman Wirzba, who wrote in his brilliant book Food and Faith:

Gardening work creates in us an indispensable ‘imaginary’ that enables us to think, feel, and act in the world with greater awareness for life’s complexity and depth. Gardens are the concentrated and focused places where people discover and learn about life’s creativity and interdependence.

lettuce

salad leaves in our garden

And this is the first lesson I learned: life is abundant. Nature’s default position seems to be excess.

Two packets of mixed salad seeds, for example, produced more than our family of five could cope with. For a few weeks in midsummer I took bags of lettuce everywhere I went, to give to anyone who would take them.

Meanwhile, down on the new allotment, our neighbour had us in stitches describing how she has battled to cope with the courgette glut: lasagne, cake, pickles – her family has forbidden her to have more than four plants next year.

It might sound as though my conclusion that nature tends to be abundant is based rather solipsistically on one good growing season. Not so: Enough Food If, a campaign supported by more than 200 organisations in the UK, is based entirely on the premise that if we can tackle the unjust structures that dominate our food system, then there is no need for anyone to go hungry. Anywhere.

Growing my own vegetables has brought the issue of food justice more sharply into focus than anything I have ever read or watched on the television.

Harvesting bowl after bowl of raspberries from just a few canes in the back garden has made me both more grateful for the food that I have and more angry about the fact that so many are not able to do even this very little thing.

Giving away lettuce to anyone who would take it and still feeling that we would never get to the end of it exposed for me like nothing else the lies that dominate our consumer culture and fuel a system where around 4 million people in one of the richest nations in the world do not have access to a healthy diet.

The lies are perpetuated by the god of consumerism, a god that needs us to be fearful of not having enough, because otherwise we might stop buying things.

This god works tirelessly to make us feel anxious, distorting language to encourage more and more purchasing. Can we really not live without double cream? Because that is what is implied when it comes packaged with the word ‘essential’.

cream

The offer of ‘buy one get one free’ that we see in so many shops is not generosity: it’s yet another way of tapping into an anxiety that says you’d better take a bit more than you need just in case there isn’t enough tomorrow.

When our whole experience of food is mediated through large corporations and industrial agriculture, it is almost impossible to stand up against these messages about scarcity.

On the other hand, reconnecting with growing and harvesting food can help us recognise them for the lies that they are – lies that, once perceived, can be beyond ridiculous.

I have four kilos of blackberries in the freezer, all gathered for free from some wild brambles. That same quantity would cost me FORTY POUNDS to buy in Tesco today. Someone’s having a laugh and it’s presumably not the people who are buying them.

blackberries

When we move from scarcity thinking to an awareness that abundance is possible, all kinds of things can happen. Like sharing. Like finding that our minds are calm enough to recognise the lies of a consumerist culture for what they are.

It’s a simple thing to grow a few vegetables in a bed or a pot. But it seems it has the power to give us a whole new way of engaging with the world.

 

making food happen


Trigrad, Bulgaria

Trigrad, Bulgaria

If you go to the ‘supermarket’ in the little Bulgarian village of Trigrad you will find crisps, biscuits, imported chocolate and, if the season is right, a few bunches of grapes. There is homemade pizza that can be heated to take away, a counter of cured meat, some cheese and, in the morning, bread.

The whole thing is about the size of a London corner shop and the range of food fits on four shelves that run round two of the walls.

You’d be wrong to think the inhabitants were short of things to eat though. Wander around this sprawling village in the Rhodope mountains, not far from the border with Greece, and you will see food growing everywhere.

 

Trigrad tomatoesborlotti beans

 

Trigrad turkeys

We visited in early September: there were tomatoes sprouting out of old oil cans, borlotti beans ripening on canes, watermelons dangling in front gardens and even a few turkeys scratching in someone’s yard.

On the lower slopes of the mountains there were rows and rows of brightly painted beehives, and everywhere trees laden with fruit: pears, apples and wild plums.

Trigrad beehives

Trigrad pears

There are no fancy hotels in Trigrad but you can stay in a family guest house. Ours looked down over the town with its jumble of red roofs, tiny mosque and even tinier church.

Trigrad church

Every evening our landlady Nadia and her husband Vincy invited all eight of us into their dining room, where Nadia served a three-course meal prepared entirely from scratch in an ordinary domestic kitchen. Meanwhile Vincy plied us with rakia, a clear spirit made from plums that goes surprisingly well with just about anything, particularly by the time you get on to your third glass.

The couple took huge pride in what they gave us. Through our Bulgarian-speaking friends Nadia told us how the trout she was cooking had been caught only hours before in a river just ten minutes’ walk away.

Trigrad river

Vincy explained that the rakia had been made by a friend of his. As I understood it, this meant it was not the absolute best we could have (that would be Vincy’s own) but it did come a close second.

In Trigrad it seemed as if not just the growing but also the preparing of food was woven tightly into everyday life. At the start of one of our walks we passed a woman carrying a plate piled with slices of warm cake: she insisted that we all took a piece. We saw another woman roasting peppers in her garden. They may have been the very ones Nadia served us that night, dripping with garlic and olive oil, meltingly soft and tasting of smoke and sunshine.

Trigrad peppers

What struck me forcibly in contrast with England was the range of food-related skills on display. It seems it is normal in Trigrad to be able to build a beehive, harvest honey, pickle vegetables, distil spirits, construct a barbecue and produce three meals a day for a roomful of complete strangers – and that’s just what we saw in one very short stay.

I don’t know whether the inhabitants of Trigrad wish their local store carried a wider range of food. I’m guessing some of the women we saw harvesting squashes might wish they didn’t always have to go out in the blistering midday sun.  I didn’t see many young people either, so I’m not trying to say this was some kind of romantic rural idyll.

But I did see enough to realise that these people have something many of us in the UK have lost. It’s a kind of confidence around food and growing, and a pleasure in eating that seems devoid of the self-consciousness and class assumptions that often accompany conversations about food over here.

With even supermarket bosses admitting that food prices are likely to rise substantially in the near future, it’s a confidence we urgently need to recover.

I often go on about Incredible Edible Todmorden, the brilliant project that is trying to give everyone in the west Yorkshire town of Todmorden access to good local food. On one of my visits recently, a resident told me about the difference that joining a growing project at her son’s school had made in her life.

‘The idea of growing something used to seem like an enormously daunting scary world of otherness that was nothing to do with me and I couldn’t possibly learn that – it was for other people,’ she said.

‘But I’ve found that it is such a simple but satisfying experience and the feeling is growing in me that if everything goes tits up and we can’t get any food anywhere then I have the means with which to provide food for myself and my son.

‘I am starting to get to the stage where I’m learning more every year that I’ll be able to make food happen.’

I love that phrase of hers – ‘able to make food happen’. The residents of Trigrad seem able to make food happen almost without thinking.

The residents of Todmorden and other Incredible Edible projects around the country offer hope to those of us who find it more daunting.

Todmorden police station

Todmorden police station

allotment joy

After six years of waiting, we finally got the call in July. The call from the council to tell us an allotment was coming free.

It was ‘rather overgrown’, the woman said, but if we would make a start on it we would be able to take it on permanently from the end of the year.

I could hardly believe it. We had more or less given up hope of ever getting more space to grow food. After resolving to take the garden more seriously back in March, I spent the spring and summer squeezing vegetable plants into every spare corner. We have had more salad than we can eat, armfuls of chard and piles of runner beans and courgettes.

There is not, however, any room to grow much more and like most people who start growing their own food we have been desperate to branch out further. Once you have eaten a few meals where all the veg came from your own plot, you want to do it all the time.

I can barely describe how I felt when we first went to check the allotment out. It was like being three years old and understanding for the first time that I would be getting a birthday. Even the reality of ‘rather overgrown’ wasn’t enough to dampen the spirits:

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It’s in a truly beautiful spot, this allotment, on a sun-drenched slope that runs down to my beloved Porter Brook . Opening the gate feels a little like entering a cathedral: there’s that same sense of deep quiet and the mystery of unseen activity.

It’s heavenly for wildlife. All the unkempt edges are alive with bees and butterflies and I hear birdsong there that I don’t recognise from my daily walks in the valley.

Our allotment neighbours also seem to be a lot of fun.scarecrowWhat inspired me to take better care of the garden was reading Ellen Davis’ Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture and understanding for the first time the seriousness of honouring whatever land has been entrusted to us.

From that point of view, the allotment is a little daunting. Although it is shared, our portion still seems like a huge expanse of land – roughly four times the size of our (admittedly tiny) garden.

But I get a leap of excitement every time I think of something else we could grow there that would never fit in at home. Artichokes! Asparagus! All our potatoes!

Since our first visit we have, whenever possible, been chopping and clearing, hacking back brambles to reveal compost bins, gooseberry bushes, even an old bath sunk into the ground.

This week there was actual digging.

On the way to the first raised bed

Finishing touches

Ta-daa!

Ta-daa!

There’s still a heap  of work to be done and I know it won’t always be easy, but for now I’m just happy and grateful to have time and sunshine and a place to dig. Now pass me that seed catalogue …

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Bed number two: here we come.