gardening

on the allotment :: July 3

Crafty shot that does not show the nose-high grass which still covers about half the plot.

Crafty shot that does not show the nose-high grass which still covers about half the plot.

 harvest

shallots

shallots1

There are two types of harvest on our allotment: ones we have worked for and ones that are an astonishing free gift. The shallots fall in to the former category – they were the first things we planted here when we only had two workable beds in the autumn. Right now they are hanging in the greenhouse to dry out, and I am frantically Googling recipes. Knowing how much of something to plant seems to be one of the hardest things for an allotment newbie to grasp.

All the fruit was here when we took over the plot and apart from a bit of weeding I have done virtually nothing to care for the plants. It feels like cheating.

The gooseberries have become jam, a crumble, and, most deliciously, some gooseberry and elderflower sorbet using a recipe from Sarah Raven’s excellent Garden Cookbook. Possibly my favourite frozen dessert ever.

digging

roots

There has been digging this past fortnight, too. It’s a bit like marking out territory for me: every time we move, and now on this allotment, I heft out the soil in a trench one spit* deep, shovel in a layer of manure, cover with soil by digging a parallel trench, and so on to the end of the bed.

Along the way you get the satisfaction of extracting weeds right down to their roots, even the most tenacious customers like bindweed and dandelions.

I never disrupt the soil again. Every spring and autumn I cover the beds with manure or home-made compost that the worms can draw down to enrich the earth. Tip: I have recently discovered that our city farm sells fantastic manure for a smallish sum of money that goes straight back into their educational programmes.

slates

The latest bed is edged with slates from our neighbours who were having a new roof installed. I’m enjoying using only found materials for the allotment: we have a tiny budget so it’s a necessity, but I actually prefer the effect to something more uniform.

blackcurrants

redcurrantsFinally our son, helpfully just back from university, has been hacking away some of the comfrey, bindweed and thistles that were rampaging through the currant bushes. I don’t think the harvest will be huge this year, but surely something good must result from berries as magical as these.

Joining with Soulemama and others around the world to share news about growing.

*spit: a layer of earth whose depth is equal to the length of the blade of a spade

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.

DSC_0011

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.

DSC_0003
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

DSC_0034

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.

2013: learning about hope

derwent bridge

When I chose hope as my one word for 2013, I must have thought I knew what it meant. Writing about the choice here, I said it would be my touchstone for year, a prism through which to view whatever unfolded.

It turns out that was a bit over-ambitious. If I think about the role hope has played in my life this year, I seem to have mostly been working out what it means! It’s been worth it, though.

Partly, my new understanding of hope has come about through reading. Some truly formative books have fallen into my hands over the past twelve months, and the most important of them was Walter Brueggemann’s The Prophetic Imagination (thank you, Kelley Nikondeha!).

Brueggemann helped me to identify false hope, which is actually a form of hopelessness. You can recognise false hope because in the end it doesn’t change anything.

The false hope offered by our affluent Western culture is that the answer to any discomfort is to consume more. In the short term, and on an individual level, this works (hello, new shoes and chocolate cake). In the long term it makes things worse. Our pain could be a catalyst to action but over-consumption dulls our emotions and takes away the energy we need to act.

In effect, the more we eat, drink and buy, the more deeply we reinforce the very structures that imprison us.

Brueggemann introduced me to the unsettling notion that the only way to real hope is through pain. We have to begin by looking unflinchingly at the darkness that is both around us and within us.

This idea was reinforced for me during the Advent just passed, through many of the Bible readings traditionally associated with that great season of hope.

It is the people walking in darkness who see the ‘great light’ promised by the prophet (Isaiah 9:2).

Or as Richard Rohr puts it in his book Preparing for Christmas: ‘We must wait and work with hope inside of the darkness – while never doubting the light that God always is … That is the narrow birth canal of God into the world – through the darkness and into an ever greater Light.’

It sobered me to think that if we manage to dispel the darkness temporarily, with all kinds of artificial things that are ultimately themselves part of the darkness – then we could miss the true light.

Which leads me to Leah Kostamo’s Planted. This book tells the funny and grace-filled story of how Kostamo and her husband established a branch of the Christian conservation organisation A Rocha in Canada, and also weaves in some serious wrestling with issues of justice, community and how to live simply in a world in crisis.

Unsurprisingly, hope is often in short supply among those who care for the environment. As Kostamo puts it: ‘Knowing what conservationists know, it’s only logical they would be tempted to despair.’

Gently and convincingly, Kostamo explains how her Christian faith roots her in hope – ‘hope that some day, some how, some way redemption is possible for all things’.

This is not another airy-fairy, false notion of hope. It is a hope born of what Kostamo calls ‘a divine adventure of reckless love’ – namely that other great Advent theme: the incarnation. An all-powerful God could choose to engage with creation in any way at all. The decision to become a part of it by taking on human form has endless implications for the way we think about the world.

As Kostamo says: ‘The incarnation shows God’s commitment to creation. The Creator becomes the created in the ultimate act of solidarity.’

The ultimate act of solidarity. Therein lies the third thing I have learnt about hope – it is inseparable from action. Another book that influenced me profoundly was Ellen Davis’s Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture. Described as an examination of ‘the theology and ethics of land use’, it sounds dry but it is the opposite. It propelled me into the garden, determined to care for it properly, recognising for the first time that care of the land is a non-negotiable part of my Christian discipleship.

I still have so much to learn as a gardener but already I am understanding that the actions of caring for soil and seed, leaf and bud, bring about a new kind of consciousness, an opportunity to disrupt some old and hitherto unquestioned notions about how to be in the world.

It’s not a bad place from which to enter 2014. I’m glad I joined in with the ‘one word’ idea. It turns out it was, as I hoped, a much better way of starting a new year than making lots of soon-to-be-broken resolutions.

The picture is of the Derwent Reservoir, Derbyshire, on Boxing Day 2013

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.

 

Frog days

cropped frogs

The frogs came this week. They are reclusive little things normally. Sometimes I hear them croaking from the crevices in our dry stone wall, or I might get a sudden jolt when I am weeding and one leaps unexpectedly from under a patch of damp foliage.

Once a year, though, they come into full view. For a day or two our tiny pond, less than a metre across, becomes a writhing, splashing melee of copulating amphibians. We counted fifteen on Tuesday, although I’m fairly sure that should be an even number.

Frog Day, as we call it, is the start of spring for our family, that and the wild garlic and celandines bursting into leaf down by the stream. Sometimes we manage to take photographs. Yesterday I was looking back through the albums from previous years and was amazed to see how regularly the frogs appear. The picture at the top was taken on Frog Day 2010 – it was 18 March, just like this year. Our other pictures are dated 13 March 2007 and 15 March 2009.

Frog Day 2009

Frog Day 2009

It thrills me, the thought of these shy, mysterious creatures responding to some inner prompting and arriving in the pond almost as though they had marked the day on the calendar. I wonder about the ponds in nearby gardens: are they also experiencing the same orgiastic celebration of the changing season?

I feel connected to these frogs, for we share a common territory; they are mating in a pond that we dug as a family, sheltering in a wall that Julian built one chilly Sunday afternoon a few years back. And yet I know so little about them and understand even less.

I am especially sensitive to this dissonance this year, this sense of being both connected to the garden and yet through my ignorance also alienated from it. I read a book called Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible by Ellen Davis, and it turned out to be one of those texts that moves into in your brain, unsettling old ways of thinking and forcing your mental furniture into new arrangements.

I knew the Hebrew Scriptures were permeated through and through with references to the land but if I ever thought about that at all, I assumed that was because they were written in a pre-industrial age. Davis exposed the superficiality of that.

Her book showed me that it goes far, far deeper and that the Bible speaks of God always intending there to be a kind of kinship between people and the land. She demonstrates how in Biblical thinking the relationships we have with one another, with God and with the soil are all interrelated: in the Biblical story, violation of the land leads to the destabilising of everything else we depend on.

Davis’s teaching made me see for the first time that our little garden is profoundly important: it is land and in substance it does not differ from the grandest scenery you can imagine. The frogs, along with the ladybirds, the woodlice and every other facet of this patch are part of a vast ecosystem that connects them and us to the rest of the created order and what we do with it really matters.

In Biblical terms, it is a gift and we have a responsibility to it. Gardening is not just a hobby, something I pick up and put down according to my whims, but an outworking of discipleship.

In practical terms, as industrial agriculture continues to swallow the countryside, suburban gardens are rapidly becoming one of the most important habitats we have. For example, a report by the charity Froglife in 2007 found that eighty per cent of ponds in the countryside were of poor or very poor quality, often because of nitrogen-run off from arable land.

frogs

Davis’s book has spurred me to take our garden more seriously this year than I have in the past.  I want to work our land properly, finding ways to make it as productive and eco-friendly as possible, pushing through my natural reluctance to go outside when it is cold or wet and facing down the the boredom that sometimes sweeps through me when the garden is yet again full of weeds and the vegetable plants failing to produce as I hoped they would.

I am not saying we will save the world just by cultivating our gardens. But I do think paying serious attention to the land on our doorsteps is foundational to responding to the environmental crisis. Another book I read recently, Norman Wirzba’s Food and Faith, puts it well:

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.

I think a lot of us need to develop this ‘imaginary’. In her book, Davis asks why we in the industrialised world are not ‘stricken to the core’ by the way we are relentlessly despoiling the earth. I think part of the answer is that we have become so desensitised to the natural world that we simply do not appreciate the enormity of what is happening.

One way of recovering that sensitivity is, I think, simply to get outside and grow stuff. I am hopeful that by engaging more deeply with our garden I will grow too and be able to live more intelligently at this critical time.

I am worried about the frogs, by the way. For two days after they came the night frost was so hard that the pond froze over. Then it snowed for 36 hours solid. I have taken it for granted that we will have tadpoles in the pond every spring. Now I am not so sure.

a happy interruption

The last thing you need when you’re up against a deadline and you feel like there will never, ever be enough hours in the day is an interruption.

Unless it’s an interruption like this.

Sixty weeny but perfect plugs of organic salad plants.

The instructions said to plant straight away.  The autumn sun was shining in the garden, there was fresh compost waiting to go in the raised beds – how could I refuse?

Well, I could have argued that this semester’s module in Victorian Literature is eating up all my time. Dickens, Gaskell, Eliot – I love you all but why did you have to write such long books?

Or I could have protested that I was behind on a major writing project that is currently earning me about sixpence halfpenny an hour and needs to be sorted out if the Dobson family is going to eat next year.

Nope, none of this was worth the sacrifice of these gorgeous little promises of winter greenery. In just an hour or so I had cleared the miserable looking courgettes (oh 2012, what a dreadful growing season you were) and the overgrown rocket, dug in the latest lot of crumbly, chocolatey compost from our bin and planted everything out.

Now we can look forward to winter purslane, corn salad, land cress and wild rocket to cheer up our winter meals. There were also two varieties of lettuce – ‘Winter Density’ and ‘Arctic King’ – that I am assured will be able to cope with the worst of the Sheffield snow, although I might tuck them up in a bit of fleece if it looks like being particularly harsh.

It’s amazing what an hour of sun and soil can do for one’s energy levels. Last week the new economics foundation recommended that we should all work shorter hours and spend the extra time in the garden. Judging from my experience today, if we took their advice we might actually end up being more productive, not less. Not to mention healthier and better equipped to cope with soaring food prices.

Incidentally, my plugs came from Organic Plants. I’ve not used them before but so far the service has been brilliant.

a world on your doorstep

Last week I met a young man who is an expert in South American tree frogs. He used to take tourists around a remote part of the Ecuadorean rainforest, identifying all kinds of wildlife for them, but especially his beloved frogs.

I was a bit in awe of this guy, of his knowledge and of his experience of the world. He lived for six months in that isolated spot in Ecuador, an hour’s plane ride away from what you might call civilisation. He worked with tribal elders, helping them to work out how to make a living without damaging the forest.

But then he said something that changed everything for me. ‘I used to think that nature was far away and out there,’ he said. ‘I thought you had to travel for miles and get away from everything to find it. But then I realised it is on your doorstep.’

We were talking at his home in west Yorkshire, an apparently ordinary house in a seemingly average street. But when you look more closely you see that Mike’s home is anything but run of the mill. Instead of a hedge in the front garden, there’s a rustic fence made of the trunks and branches from the Leylandii he chopped down when he moved in. The rest of his plot is being slowly developed as a forest garden, a way of growing edible plants that imitates the ecosystems found in woodland. There’s a ground covering of strawberries, then a layer of bushes – in this case currants and gooseberries – then a planting of nut trees. This is just the beginning: eventually the whole plot will be a low maintenance, sustainable source of food for Mike’s family.

I was struck by the whole concept of gardening in this way, but even more by the richness that Mike was discovering simply by being attentive to the nature on his doorstep. When I got back to Sheffield it made me look at our lovely valley in a new way. As luck would have it, when I took one of my regular walks up to the top of the stream, it was just after one of the heaviest rainfalls of this incredibly wet summer.

Often in summer the water just trickles through this valley but on this day it was in full spate, fiercer and stronger than I have ever seen it. It was surging down towards the parks at the bottom, pleating and plaiting as it dropped more than three hundred metres through a series of weirs and millponds, relics of the days when it drove more than 20 mills used in the manufacture of cutlery and hand tools.

After rainfall like last week the iron deposits that have shaped this valley’s history churn up to the surface, shading the water through ochre and dark ginger to a kind of luminous rust colour. From a distance you could think it was flowing over a succession of underwater lights. As I made my way along a path made sticky with mud and sodden leaves I was thinking of our daughter currently hundreds of miles away, planting trees in a remote corner of Madagascar. I’d been a little envious of this trip of a lifetime, but today the unfamiliar roar of a stream in spate and the memory of Mike’s fascination with his garden were giving me a new perspective.

Here I was, a few hundred metres from our front door, surrounded by ancient woodland, torrential water and a long, rich history that I knew disgracefully little about. I know even less of the wildlife that inhabits this wonderful spot. Thanks to my parents’ fascination with ornithology I’m not too bad at identifying the birds – I’ve seen nuthatches, woodpeckers, dippers and even a kingfisher on my walks but I know almost nothing of the mammals that live round here and still less about the insects and reptiles, not to mention the fungi, the trees, the plants and what you can do with them.

The truth of what Mike said about nature being on our doorstep came home to me on this walk. I realised too that I didn’t even need to come this short way to find it. It’s in my tiny garden, too, a whole ecosystem that I am barely aware of.

The pond in our garden at frog-mating time

Back in the eighties, when AIDS was first identified, there was a health campaign with the slogan ‘don’t die of ignorance’. With the world now facing unprecedented food shortages, spiralling transport costs and weather patterns that are both unpredictable and potentially devastating, it seems our ignorance about the world in front of our noses may be at least as big a threat.

Mike is a walking encyclopaedia when it comes to the natural world. He knows what weeds you can eat, what to plant to fix nitrogen in your soil, how to manage ponds so that they sustain the widest possible range of beneficial wildlife. It’s a knowledge acquired over years and it flourishes within a deep appreciation and respect for the world on the doorstep.

I think it’s time to do something about my ignorance.

shifting focus

Almost as soon as I arrive at my parents’ house I take a walk around the garden. Of all places on earth, this is the one I associate most with my mother. Gardening, and especially vegetable growing, has been her joy and passion for fifty years or more. Like many people, she had a brief fling with roses and herbaceous borders in the seventies, but with a growing family to feed she was always most focused on edible plants.

Ungrateful teenager that I was, I really did not appreciate the privilege of having fresh, seasonal food at every meal. I took it all for granted, the bowls of organic raspberries, the rhubarb crumbles, the apparently unlimited supply of French beans, salad and peas.

During the harvesting season, Mum hardly moved beyond the garden and the kitchen, sometimes falling into bed at one or two in the morning after hours of blanching veg for the freezer. I remember when she had three freezers in the garage and every one was full of square Tupperware containers packed with fruit and vegetables, neatly stacked and meticulously labelled. That was probably a legacy of the war and of growing up with rationing. She was like a squirrel who couldn’t rest until there was an abundant store of food.

Things are different now though and for the first time in my life I do not see my mother outside in the garden. Aged 77 and suffering from a horrible degeneration of her spine, she mostly sits in what we call her ‘nest’, a space on the sofa where she is surrounded by piles of gardening and cookery magazines, her glasses, her phone and her medicines all within reach.

In theory I know this must have affected the garden; in practice I am not fully prepared for what I find.

The sun shines and I take my camera into the garden again and again. After weeks of cloud and rain in Sheffield, I am fascinated by the way the light changes, how the shadows shift across the grass and how every few minutes a different plant is lit up by sunshine.

I take shot after shot of the roses growing around the arch by the shed. They have been there for years: deep pink ones beaded with dew in the early morning, and some velvety crimson ones that have flopped off their supporting arch towards some self-seeded foxgloves. You would think the colours would clash, but in fact they blend to give an impression of majestic, imperial purple. From the window my mum points out how they complement the reddish buds of the Belgian honeysuckle.

Someone is coming later to mow the grass but for now drifts of speedwell sweep across it. The bed Mum planted specifically for pollinators is a riot of ox-eye daisies; later in the day I watch the bees dance to and fro between them and the intensely blue borage flowers.

The arch into the vegetable garden is smothered with jasmine, literally hundreds of tiny pink flowers. I pass beneath it and catch my breath. I take in the raised beds choked with bindweed, the empty compost bins, the gooseberries that will rot on the bush if nobody picks them soon.

It seems wrong to linger here, like an intrusion. Instead I turn around and go back towards the house, taking more pictures of the roses, the foxgloves, the honeysuckle. I keep focusing on these, adjusting the lens of the camera over and over again as the light moves.

Later I sit with my mum and try to get her to talk about how life is with my dad in hospital and her problems with mobility. She doesn’t try to deny that it can be hard, but she focuses mainly on the good things: their many friends, the television programmes she enjoys, the pleasure of texting her grandchildren. She is a profoundly spiritual person; when we talk together she makes me think of deep rivers and of a steel blade, shining, strong and unbreakable.

We do not like to talk about ageing much in our culture and like most people I fear it, all the loss and the letting go. But sitting with my mum I realise that however much she has had to give up – and she has given up a lot – she is no way diminished as a person. It is a privilege to sit there, peaceful, with the sun streaming through the window and a song thrush calling noisily from the garden.