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.

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Tanzania postcards 1: vegetable solidarity

One of the many things I love about growing food is that it is so easy to make connections with other gardeners. When we left Sheffield to stay with friends in Tanzania last week, we were just celebrating the first ripe plum from a tree we planted in 2012.

plum

When we arrived in Tanzania, our friends’ gardener Abu allowed me to photograph him harvesting their first paw paw.

paw paw

Then Abu took me all around the garden he and our friends have created by transforming what was a huge pile of rubble into a thriving, productive vegetable patch.

keyhole garden resized

I had heard about keyhole gardens before and it was fascinating to see them in action. The gardens have a central hole for water and compostable kitchen waste: they are a kind of recycling system that allows nutrients to spread throughout the soil and they have the added benefit of making maximum use of water in very dry areas.

bananas resized

Abu is also growing five different kinds of banana, along with spinach, rocket, tomatoes, cucumber, lettuce, cassava, sweetcorn, sweet potatoes, chillies, onions, avocado, carrots, peppers – and probably more that I have forgotten.

Leaves from the banana trees are used to shade a special germination area, protecting the tender young seedlings from the strong Tanzanian sun.

shelter resized

I gave Abu some runner bean seeds from England and we talked about our favourite herbs. I promised to send him some basil seeds, which he loves but finds hard to get in Tanzania. It was a conversation that made me feel immediately connected in a country I have never visited before.

Thank you, Abu, for giving me such a great welcome.

On the allotment: July 17

teaselsWhen we took on the allotment we promised ourselves one thing: we would not allow it to become a source of stress.

Easier said than done.

Last week we needed to propagate the strawberries, there was sowing to do for autumn planting and a third of the plot still consisted of nose-high grass.

overgrown

I had a brief moment of head-clenching tension and then thought: enough.

We are privileged enough not to depend on this land for food. The crops will become an increasingly important part of our diet but one of the main reasons we love this plot is that as well as helping us learn to grow vegetables, it is enriching our lives and refreshing our spirits, forcing us to move away from the computer screens that dominate the rest of our time.

So we took the decision to focus only on clearing the rest of the ground and digging out new beds. That will allow us to have a proper planting plan next year.

There is still plenty to do.

brambles

weed heap

I’m a bit sad that this means we might not have our own strawberries next year, but that’s another thing about growing food: it forces you to take a longer perspective. We might have to buy them from the greengrocer for a season, but we can hope for a crop in 2016.

It’s a difficult mental adjustment when you are used to daily, even hourly, deadlines. But it feels like a healthy kind of discipline.

This has been a good fortnight for flowers …

courgette flower

Courgette

French bean

French bean

Tomato

Tomato

… and a very bad one for rhubarb.

rhubarb

Things are even worse now than in this picture: almost all the leaves have dropped off and the stems have turned a nasty shade of brown. I’ve been Googling away to try and identify the problem and was a bit ashamed to turn up site after site proclaiming that rhubarb is a very easy crop to grow and poses virtually no problems.

But I fear we may have crown rot. Does anyone else have experience of this, or suggestions for a different diagnosis? I’m tempted to spread a thick layer of manure all around and hope for the best, but I don’t want to waste the stuff if the rhubarb is really a lost cause.

Linking up with Soulemama, who is doing interesting things with a bumper bean crop.

Launched

view of Tod

Did ever a book launch have a lovelier view? This is Todmorden, as seen from outside the Unitarian church, where we had a beautiful afternoon of celebrations for Incredible! on Saturday.

It’s one of only three photos I managed to take but I appointed our daughter Finn as Unofficial Launch Photographer, so here’s a little insight into the day, courtesy of her excellent pictures.

The first part of the launch was one of the ‘rewards’ for some of our top Kickstarter backers, although sadly not all of them were able to come. My co-author Pam Warhurst welcomed them in her usual dynamic and inspiring way.

pam welcome

Then Estelle Brown, Incredible Edible’s full time, unpaid webmaster and tour guide, took everyone off to look at the town. Here she is outside Mary Clear’s front garden, where everything is edible and anyone can help themselves.

Estelle

Thanks to Estelle, our guests saw all the sharing beds around town, from the police station to the pre-school, and also enjoyed the edible walking route that features not just food for humans but lots of plants that are good for bees too. To avoid overkill on the pictures I haven’t put many of the town on here – if you want to see more of the wonder that is Todmorden, take a look at Incredible Edible’s website.

children's bed
blackcurrants
pollination street

Meanwhile, back at the church, it was all hands on deck to get the lunch ready. Here’s Pam in a pinny with lovely helper Alison.

food setting up

The food! What can I say about the food? It was stupendous.

food marigold

dip

food and lavender

stuffed tomatoes

sprouts

 

sushi cropped

And lots of the ingredients came from around the town.

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If you didn’t know, you’d never guess it was completely free of meat, dairy and other animal products. Volunteer Hilary Wilson, who is a passionate vegan and outstanding cook, had spent the whole week planning and prepping. I managed to snap this picture of her during a rare moment away from the kitchen.

hilary

It stayed dry all day (never a given in Todmorden) so we ate outside. Don’t worry about the policemen – they weren’t there to keep order but to represent the local force, whose station plot is one of the most photographed in the town.

lunch

Lunch over, it was off to Incredible Farm, the project that never stops evolving. It’s almost impossible to believe this was once a piece of waterlogged, rubbish-filled scrubland.

polytunnels

Some of the new developments this year are a solar powered pumping system …

solar pump

… and Rufus the cow, seen here with François Rouillay, founder of Incroyables Comestibles, the French manifestation of Incredible Edible.

Francois and Rufus

Back at the church, lots more people were arriving for afternoon tea. All the cakes were vegan too, and they tasted even better than they looked.

cakestand

cake

chocolate buns

And what about these for some Incredible tea cosies? Somehow, town centre grower Jenny Coleman manages to find time to knit them.

carrot cosy

tea

Over the time I’ve been writing about Todmorden I’ve learned to expect the unexpected. This time it was a magnificent peal of bells that rang out just as we were coming to the end of our tea, part of the celebrations to mark the volunteer-funded restoration of the belfry.

Some of the hardy Incredibles were staying on for the second party but for us it was time for one last photograph and then to set off back to Sheffield through the beautiful Calder valley.

pam and jo1

Thank you, Incredible Edible Todmorden, for an unforgettable afternoon.

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.

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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

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.