Gardening and Optimism

My garden is not very tidy. And, in spite of all the effort I put into looking after it, not especially productive in terms of harvested fruit and vegetables. We are not self sufficient. We depend on the very hard work of farmers in order to eat. Even so, my garden – my own most local outdoor environment – is a pleasant place to be. A place where I am particularly aware of the other living things with whom I must share resources.

We could produce more vegetables if we removed trees to let in more light, or dug up more areas of long grass and wildflowers. If we cut down weed seedheads more frequently, our annual vegetables would suffer less from competition. But these actions would also reduce the food available for non-human creatures. Not only would that be bad for them, it would be quite likely to cause an increase in pest attacks on the edible crops we already have.

My garden is what it is, and I get plenty of enjoyment out of it, as well as plenty of fresh food. The cultivated fruit and vegetables are often small and sometimes scarce, though I always plant a good variety. There are also wild leaves, roots, seeds, fruits and flowers. There is live wood and deadwood. There are decaying leaves and dried leaves, dried out hollow stems and other homes for small creatures. And there is soil, some managed, some left alone. Everywhere throughout this complicated mess, non-human life feeds and grows. Optimism need not be about the expectation of good things in the future, it can also mean the appreciation of what we have right now. Gardeners need not be forever fretting about what they might produce next year. This year, right here, right now, is worth appreciating.

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Ryton Organic Gardens

I garden organically – of course – I don’t see the point of any garden that’s not welcoming to a variety of wildlife.

So I have been concerned to learn recently that Ryton Organic Gardens, home of the organisation Garden Organic, is up for sale. Although I am a member of the organisation, I learned the news from friends on Facebook, rather than through any official announcement. It’s all very strange.

For posterity, I am going to say here that I wish the sale of this iconic garden was not necessary. An enormous number of gardeners have had their hands in the soil at the site, collaborating in the slow creation of an inspirational showcase of gardening excellence. I have only been there a few times, yet every visit has re-ignited my enthusiasm for organic gardening. It is a very special place. On my first visit, a gentle, elderly man, eating an ice cream, chatted to me while my children ate theirs. He turned out to be Lawrence Hills, founder of the Henry Doubleday Research Organisation, later re-named Garden Organic. Lawrence was a little eccentric, but he was also interesting, interested, and generous. The organic soil of Ryton is partly his legacy.

Find out more about the issue here:

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Thoughtful Weeding

The task of weeding can get you down if you let it. Weeds seem to grow up as fast as you can cut them down. Weeding is often described like some kind of warfare, aiming to ‘beat the weeds’ or even ‘win the war on weeds’.

Gardening is not war. Weeding is not a battle. Limited, thoughtful, targeted weeding is perfectly sufficient. There’s absolutely no need for any garden to be totally weed-free.

I only remove weeds when:
• They are obviously starving cultivated plants of space, light and nourishment.
• They are providing a habitat for slugs very close to young seedlings.
• I’m getting creative with the visual effect of plants and the weeds don’t look right. Sometimes they look just as lovely as cultivated plants, in which case I leave them alone.
• I’m harvesting the weeds. Many can be eaten. Comfrey and nettles make compost and plant feed.
• A particular weed, often dandelion, dock, cow parsley, nettles, giant hogweed or burdock, is getting so profuse I want to slow it down before the garden contains nothing else. In this case, I wait until the weeds are flowering and cut all the tops off before they go to seed. With dandelions, all the flowers can be picked off and made into wine – an added bonus.

I never bother removing weeds for no reason. Just because I didn’t plant something, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be allowed to live. Gardening is not war, but management. Good management involves respect and thoughtfulness.

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Plenty of Apples Again

It’s been a good apple harvest this year. Ours are mostly ‘eaters’ rather than ‘cookers’.

We store as many as we can, but some are not long-term keepers. Stored apples past their best get put out for the birds in winter or turned into compost.

However much of a joy it is to eat fresh apples, a family can only get through so many. I’ve given a lot away and I’ve also been thinking up ways to cook and preserve them. Peeled and sliced eating apples, baked in the oven in covered dishes, taste sweet without any sugar added. Or if you just wash and core them, bake them, then remove the skins when they’re cool, they can be mashed to a puree. Spread this on a baking sheet to dry out on a very low heat, creating ‘apple leather’, a super-healthy snack. Dried apple rings are surprisingly easy to make and they store well, too.

All this apple processing is a lot of work. In previous years I’ve tried making apple juice and cider as well, which is even more exhausting (though well worth it).

What makes a glut of eating apples so useful is they taste sweet without needing sugar.

Now, as winter arrives, it’s time to prune the trees and say thank you.

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Soft Fruit and the Economics of Gardening

Last year’s blackcurrant crop was eaten by birds before the fruit was even ripe. So this summer, I used a small pop-up fruit cage to cover the bushes. With the birds kept out, there was a good blackcurrant harvest. Unfortunately, because I had to buy the cage, it would have been cheaper (though not as tasty) to leave the fruit to the birds and buy blackcurrants from a supermarket.

Then again, there are economics of resources other than money. My home-grown soft fruit doesn’t need pesticides or herbicides. This not only saves money but causes less disruption to the local ecosystem. I don’t use any fertilisers, just do a little pruning, weeding and mulching. The berries are picked, rinsed in tap water and then frozen or made into jams and jellies, all on the same day. So no food miles and less time for the flavour to deteriorate with storage. And the only packaging needed is some freezer bags and re-used jam jars, saving on unnecessary waste.

In contrast to the blackcurrants, the raspberries I picked this year cost me nothing at all in money. A large number of raspberry canes have run away over the years from the neat line we originally planted. Many of these runaways have gone to live in very weedy patches of the herb garden. Every year, the canes bear fruit amongst head-high patches of wild grasses, hogweed, docks, nettles, scullcap, valerian and lemon balm.

Finding and picking the raspberries costs me a fair amount of time, but I get a good crop. The tall weeds hide the fruit from birds. They also give some protection from heavy rain, provide shade from scorching sun and help prevent moisture evaporating from the soil in dry periods. It wasn’t a conscious choice on my part to let the raspberries and the weeds all do their own thing, but it has resulted in a sort of ecological economy.

By not bothering to interfere very much with the natural inclinations of the plants (although raspberry canes, admittedly, have been bred by humans to be different to their wilder ancestors), I am aware of being a participant in an ecological system, rather than imagining that I can exist outside it.

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A Future for the Old Ways?

At the time I was writing my book Tree Speaker, reports were beginning to reach the general public about the threat of global warming and the unsustainability of fossil fuels. Many writers were thinking imaginatively about how our own future might involve less rather than more of certain kinds of technology. I knew that the fictional world I was working on might come across as old-fashioned to some readers, but from my own point of view it was never intended to be backward-looking. It was based on my feelings and thoughts about our own world and its future.

I was still working as a herbalist when I began Tree Speaker. I knew plenty about using locally-grown plants every day in the home, to improve people’s quality of life without the need for long-distance transport and factory-based manufacture. I couldn’t imagine a plant-based utopia. But I wanted to suggest that one way of beginning to live more in balance with our environment might be to listen to the rest of the natural world. So in Tree Speaker, some characters have a kind of telepathic link to plants. In reality, using herbs around the home and for medicine is usually considered backward or old-fashioned, but there may come a time when such everyday practical skills become essential once more. Not only that, we now have scientific knowledge about plants to add to our folk knowledge, and we have the means to share both, so that mistakes need not made in ignorance.

When scientific medicine provided antibiotics and all the marvels now available in Britain through the National Health Service, it did not necessarily invalidate all of the herbal cures that were in use before. It really only widened the range of treatments available and introduced some answers to those problems the earlier healers couldn’t solve. In the same way, other things that might be considered old-fashioned or backward-looking could still remain useful in the future. Perhaps ‘recycling’ sounds more up-to-date than the slogan ‘Make do and mend’, but they are similar ideas. Growing your own vegetables and obtaining locally-produced food sometimes seems to be an expensive, time-consuming and somewhat retro lifestyle choice. At the moment, it is more normal to buy food from supermarkets, but normality is subject to change.

There is no guarantee that we will continue to have as many lifestyle choices in the future as we do now. The industrial revolution based on fossil fuels is already in the past, and the ways of life that worked back then may no longer work now or in the future. I didn’t write Tree Speaker to show how sweet it was back in olden times when people used plants around the home. I wanted to suggest that we can take inspiration from the old ways when inventing new ones.

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Herb Gardening

I have planted and cared for a number of herb gardens over the years, all in my usual haphazard way. Instead of taking the easiest approach, routinely weeding, clipping, trimming and replacing spent plants in order to keep to a planned arrangement, I have always given much control over to the plants themselves.

I may have started by clearing the ground of weeds and covering it with compost (mixed with grit for thyme and lavender, so their roots don’t get too wet in our clay soil). I may have worked hard at keeping the weeds down around the newly planted young herbs. But once the herbs have established themselves, I have always ended up letting them all ‘straggle’ and spread and go to seed.

After a while, weeding becomes a process of yanking out grass, nettles, docks and so on, leaving most of the tangled mess of unruly herbs as they are. Eventually, a lot of the herbs relocate themselves to different parts of the garden that they seem to prefer to the places I chose for them. Sometimes I also leave certain weeds alone as they are useful herbs, too.

In my herb garden this year, there are shiny yellow St John’s Wort flowers poking through the lavender bushes. Self-seeded skullcap and lemon balm plants surround a wildlife pond where I had once planted violets (now living at the edges of paths and lawns). One of my herb beds has filled up with raspberry canes that didn’t like living in the fruit cage, so I’ve let them stay and they have cropped well. On the other hand, some valerian has moved out of the herb garden and gone to live where the raspberries were supposed to be.

Mullein, vervain, poppies, calendula and heartsease really love to set seed in the vegetable beds, where the ground is thoroughly disturbed every year. Unfortunately, they often grow big enough to swamp the vegetables, so I usually dig them up and re-home them somewhere else. All efforts to provide small patches of clear ground for them to set seed in the herb garden have failed.

My own style of herb gardening is about trying to manage the plants in a way that suits us both, rather than trying to impose a great deal of order. I don’t need neat plants in regular patterns. I just want to know they are all out there somewhere, so I can find them when I need them.

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Early Summer

Leaves are out on all the trees, in every shade of green. There are flowers all over the place. Weeds and cultivated plants are growing together and looking just as pretty as if I had planted them all deliberately. Slugs are eating plants. Frogs, toads and thrushes are eating slugs. Bees and other insects are feeding and pollinating, taking and giving.

At this time of year, I mostly just let the garden get on by itself. If there isn’t much rain, I water the most needy plants. If absolutely essential, I occasionally weed young vegetables. I go out after dark with a torch to hunt for slugs. I harvest soft fruits, rhubarb, salad leaves and mange-tout peas. What I don’t do is try and weed everywhere or attempt to keep the garden tidy. I can’t, because I get hayfever.

The result of this neglect is that the garden looks untidy. But we still manage to grow vegetables and fruit, and we still enjoy the sight of flowers. While I take refuge indoors to avoid the pollen, insects, birds and all the other wildlife around can make good use of all the food and shelter that the messy garden provides for them.

It can be tempting to think of gardening as a constant process of control, keeping everything neat and tidy, growing reliable rows of the same crops year after year. But for me, that approach has only ever led to disappointment. I can’t control the weather, for one thing, and every year is different. This year, there may be a glut of one sort of fruit or vegetable that gives no useful crop at all next year, no matter how much I try to nurture everything.

Nothing is ever certain when it comes to gardening. So it’s best just to make the most of what you’ve got when you’ve got it. Last year we had lots of pears. This year cold weather damaged all the blossoms and discouraged the insects from pollinating them, so no pears at all. On the other hand, the strawberry crop looks good so far.

The solution to the unpredictability of gardening is variety, so that when one crop fails, another one may thrive. And that’s probably why the wildlife enjoys untidiness, too. Instead of a lot of one plant, there are enough different kinds to support a variety of creatures, allowing them to keep themselves in balance.

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Half way between a tree and a shrub, Elder is a hedgerow weed that deserves a lot of respect. It is so useful that folkloric stories discourage people from cutting it down, but it also has a dark side.

Its flowers and fruit can be used as food or medicine. Its bark and leaves are toxic, although they have been used to deter pests. For more information consult a good herbal (for Elder, Mrs Grieve is my favourite).

Both flowers and berries are best gathered using a pair of scissors and a bucket. With the scissors in one hand, snip through the stalks of the umbels (heads). Hold the bucket underneath in your other hand, catching them as they fall.

With berries, the next job is to strip them off their stalks using a fork. This takes a while, but is very satisfying once you get the technique right. Throw the stalks on the compost heap and use the fresh berries for jams, jellies, conserves, wine, or Elderberry Rob (a thick syrup).

Elderberry wine is well worth making, although it requires several hours worth of picking and stripping the berries. There are lots of recipes about. I like the ones with ginger in.

Elderflower wine is good, too, and Elderflower champagne is lovely. Only pick the flowers in dry weather, otherwise they may go mouldy before the drink is ready for straining.

For Elderflower champagne, you need the kind of bottles sold for beer making with plastic safety tops. The simplest recipes are the ones I’ve had most success with – just flowers, water, sugar and lemon juice for champagne, and the same with added yeast for wine.

There’s something so vigorous about elder that its presence in my garden feels healthy,  reminding me of all the living things that come here of their own accord, and making me proud to welcome them.

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Is Growing Vegetables Worthwhile?

This is something I wonder in November and December when the new seed catalogues come out, tempting me into buying a lot of vegetable seeds. I could save some of my own of course, but that depends very much on having dry weather at the right time to collect and store ripe seed. And I always buy fresh onion sets, garlic and seed potatoes each year, to avoid potential disease problems. Having spent money on seed, I then spend some more on compost. Home-made compost is fine for established plants, but not so good for seeds and seedlings unless you are able to sterilize it. I always need to buy more plant pots, too, even though the old ones can be washed and recycled.

Having invested money in growing the plants, I then invest a lot of time: keeping them warm, making sure they get enough sunlight, watering them, hardening them off, planting them in the garden beds, and most of all, protecting them from pests. Trying not to spend even more money, I construct makeshift covers out of recycled plastic trays and bottles; weave barriers out of willow and hazel stems; and use the fallen twigs from birch trees to protect young plants. All this is usually enough to prevent too much damage to the seedlings by birds and cats.

Other methods are needed to protect plants against slugs and snails: barriers of coffee grounds and crushed egg shells around the plants (having spent all winter carefully washing and storing the waste egg shells), usually with the addition of (expensive) organic slug-control products and extra-vigilant night-time slug and snail-collecting missions. Even with all this, sometimes a whole bed of seedlings still gets mysteriously eaten overnight. After a serious slug attack, there is nothing to do but begin the whole process again with fresh seeds. Even when all this works and the plants survive into adulthood, I sometimes suspect it is actually down to a change in the weather rather than my efforts. In a very wet spring, the slugs and snails are always going to be a problem.

So then some vegetable plants get going and if the weather is dry, a fair amount of time is needed to water them. After that, harvesting, which takes up more time.

Rather than investing all this time and money in producing vegetables of my own, I could drive to a supermarket and buy some. I could even drive a bit further and buy some from an organic farm. The bought vegetables would be cheaper and bigger than the ones I grow myself. So why do I bother?

Well, I don’t live within walking distance of a supermarket and I like to have some foodstuffs to hand without needing to drive. Buying from supermarkets also involves wider issues about the transportation of food and concerns about wastage. But the main reason I go to all this trouble is to have the chance to pick vegetables that go straight to the kitchen, for eating or cooking immediately. They are as fresh as they can possibly be, and that’s exactly how they taste.

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