We all have them….the friends we adore and who are so important to us but who somehow get lost amongst all our other commitments. You know how it goes; a couple of weeks without seeing each other becomes a couple of months…..and then more time passes….and then more time….so that getting in touch begins to feel uncomfortable. Then, one day, you realise just how much you miss them and you arrange to meet up.
It’s a little awkward at first; realising how much you’ve missed out on, feeling guilty for leaving it so long, feeling, perhaps, a little resentful of the missed months….but the awkwardness passes in minutes, you pick up where you left off as if no time had passed at all. You remember how much you love your friend and how good they make you feel simply by being in their company.
…and that’s how it has been for me and my beloved kitchen garden. At first I had an excuse not to visit because of the accident that damaged both hands but for the last five weeks one of my hands has been better…..and yet I still didn’t return to my oasis. I guess a part of me was worried about what I would find, worried that my unvisited patch would take revenge on me for neglecting it for so long by throwing up huge weeds and rotting winter veg…..
I shouldn’t have worried. Yes, we had an awkward first few minutes….did my broad beans actually turn their leafy backs on me when I arrived? Were those pesky little weeds laughing at me? No matter. I sat amongst my broad beans, gently weeding between them and gradually I began to feel forgiven. The garden hasn’t fared too badly without me over the last three months but I think that’s because I put so much work and love into it last autumn. Yes, there is much to do as we race towards spring…..but my little patch of soil is still feeding me…….and, as if to say ‘thank you for coming back’, that soil yielded me the gift of parsnips and carrots as I was leaving.
Gardens, like good friends, will forgive and always take you back….so if you have neglected yours this winter go and make a visit…..you may be surprised by the gifts your old friend gives you.
It is fairly well known that I love my shed. Sheds, one could argue, are the epitome of British allotment life…….as we travel through the ‘burbs on our commuter trains we see the allotments……and then we see the sheds; neat and tidy or ramshackle, Heath-Robinsonesque structures that even Robinson Crusoe would be proud to call home.
These little structures give shelter to our most prized tools: our spades and forks, our riddles and assorted pots and trays…..they house our battered old biscuit tins full of seeds and our other biscuit tins full of, well, biscuits. Sometimes our sheds are big enough for a chair…..and we dash to them for shelter from the unpredictable British weather. Some of them are so tiny it takes a planning committee to get a trowel into them. So much is our obsession with our sheds we even have a national, televised competition devoted to them.
But our sheds are so much more than store-houses for our tools and teabags. They are sanctuaries, a ‘room of one’s own’, far away from the madding crowds. The beauty of the shed (or mine at least) is that there are no phone cables, no computers, no emails…….my shed is silent. Silent….but for the creaking floor and the hiss of the gas as it boils the kettle. Some people spend a small fortune on a foreign holiday to ‘get away from it all’…..I go to my shed…..for free. I sit in my shed alone…and dream. Sometimes I read. Sometimes I fill my shed with friends and drink tea and dunk biscuits until the sun goes down…..but mostly I just sit….and listen to the quiet.
I’m planning on building a new shed this year and I can’t wait. In my mind it will be something between a mountain cabin and a beach hut….in truth it will probably look more like Mr Crusoe’s hide-out.
No matter. It will be a room of my own. But you’re all invited of course.
So, here we are at the end of another year and taking stock… both of our kitchen gardens and of ourselves. I have been quiet for a few weeks not because there was nothing to do on the soil but because an accident put both my wrists/arms out of action (I’m ok by the way…..and slowly healing). When the accident first happened at the end of November I was hopping mad (I could still hop!)…..there was so much I wanted to do in the garden. I love the winter months to work my little bit of soil…..there are fewer people around…..a peace descends…..time seems to expand…and the bare bones of the garden become visible….it is my time for planning and fantasizing about the perfect garden I will create.
This year I was stopped in my tracks. For a couple of weeks I felt thoroughly miserable and frustrated and a tad sorry for myself. I couldn’t face visiting the garden knowing I wouldn’t be able to do any ‘work’…I cooped myself up at home, prepared myself for months of boredom and sank into a daily mantra of ‘it’s not fair, why me?’…..’I can’t grow anything’…. I became despondent. The hours felt like days…..
I don’t quite know how or why it happened…..but there was a day when I woke up and decided to stop feeling sorry for myself…..I started to think about all the people far worse off than me…..I thought about people I know who have come through some truly awful times, people who have somehow muddled their way through their dark ‘winters’ and have come out the other side to find their ‘spring’….and with these thoughts I found myself taking the walk down the hill to visit my kitchen garden…
It was, of course, looking a little sad…..but it didn’t matter…….there was hope in that soil. And that is it in a nutshell. As I sat outside my shed, wrapped up tight against the cold wind, I pondered all that my little kitchen garden grows……on this tiny scrap of land I have grown a ton of veggies…..but I’ve also grown friendships, grown patience, grown gratitude, grown optimism, grown peace…….I have grown humility and love. I have grown empathy and compassion.
As I walked away, through the magic gate, the words of a Persian poet rang in my head……’this too shall pass’…. we will all have ‘spring’ again one day…..I hope, for you all, that your spring is just around the corner…
We have entered the planning zone. The time when we find excuses not to tend our kitchen gardens because of the rather nasty weather and because – hey! – another 1000 catalogues have come through the post. We drool over our catalogues and dream of the year to come……oh! if only our veg would look like those in the pictures, if only our plots looked like those at the show grounds of Chelsea etc. We go to the library and browse the ‘natural history’ section and the ‘hobby’ section in the hope that we will find the Holy Grail of answers…..
Our seed packets arrive, our books arrive…….and then the confusion begins……what type of soil to grow in, what type of weather, what type of compost to use, what type of fertiliser…….aghhhh……..the list is endless. If you follow the books and the seed packets you’ll be stuffed! The only way to grow veggies is to stick some seeds in the ground and see what happens…..year after year…. We have to be optimists but we also have to be realists… Your seed packet may say ‘sow from Feb until June’…….what the heck (!) that’s a big time scale………only by experimenting in your kitchen garden will you know if February is better than June…….. and you have to be prepared for failure. Failure on a scale that will break your little heart. You will have a veggie that you try to grow but, no matter what you do, it fails. Miserably. Year after year. But. One day it will work.
We learn a lot from each other, from the ‘old hands’ on our sites, but we learn most when we are optimistic. We learn that though it may not have worked this year it just might next year. We learn to throw away the books and watch our own little patch and what it will give us…….we learn that the seed packets and their sowing times are aimed at people like us but also people far away from us….they are just a clue…..a little, maybe, insight into the mysterious world of growing your own food……
Read your books, watch your videos……they will all help…..but, above all, tune into your instincts, into your soil, into nature…………and go with the flow that your patch offers you.
I cannot wait for next year and more disasters……and more amazing moments! Happy planning.
“What is this life if full of care, we have no time to stop and stare…..”
…..the words have been going around in my mind and nagging me for weeks. I know that I should ‘stop and stare’ but somehow the to-do lists win more times than not. The autumn is always such a busy time in the kitchen garden….gathering harvests, digging, sowing, dismantling structures, cleaning, storing……and copious hours spent in the kitchen ‘processing’ all the bounty….all this combined with work, family etc ad infinitum and it can feel like I am forever chasing my own worn out tail.
…..but then a moment comes, unplanned, when I find myself sitting still for a second outside my shed…..doing nothing, staring, without a thought, out over my veggies. It is a wonderful feeling and as I become conscious of it I allow it to grow. I allow my senses to breathe and come back to life.
My eyes are the first to engage; with the colours all around me, with the changing light, in noticing the birds chancing their luck for worms in the freshly turned soil. As I watch and look my ears, too, tune in; there are squirrels chattering in the elderberry tree behind the shed, the gas is gently hissing on the stove…..somewhere, a little further away, someone is playing piano. I close my eyes and let my ears do the seeing….I can feel the weak autumn sun on my cheeks, the faintest of breezes catches a few whisps of hair that have escaped their grips….
….and then the smells come. Damp leaves, damp soil…rich, dark brown smells. A whiff of wood smoke and with it myriad memories of my grandparent’s place. I am transported and my to-do lists are a million miles away.
These moments on the plot are as precious to me as any of the veg I grow. I should make more time for them…..
Let us all put away our lists…..just for a moment……and stare.
The gate. It’s a big old thing; heavy, creaking, clunky……it swings open reluctantly and bangs shut with a dull thud. Fortified with a chain heavier than anything Jacob Marley could ever manage to shake and clank. The paint is peeling, the hinges are rusting…..it blends perfectly into its sprawling, decaying urban surroundings and hardly warrants a second glance.
But it is a magic gate. This gate has the power to transform those who pass through it and reward them with moments of pure bliss and joy. Every time I step through this gate I feel the scrunch in my shoulders loosen, my head is carried a little higher, my stride softens and slows, the frown on my brow disappears as surely as if it had been botoxed, I breathe……deeply. It is a Wizard of Oz moment…..stepping from black and white into blazing technicolour.
Life outside the gate is so often played in black and white – we all have it; the pressures of work and money, family life, juggling time, health issues, all the nitty-gritty, grind down stuff…….but on the other side of the gate the black and white, if only for a brief moment, disappears and we have roses in our cheeks again.
Sometimes, as I try to fall asleep after a particularly hard day, I picture myself opening the gate and walking through…. Your kitchen garden may not have a gate….a big, old, clunky gate like mine……but I’m sure whatever threshold you cross you, too, step into colour.
In my kitchen garden I am still the same old me……but a better me. In the kitchen garden I am me in glorious technicolour.
If you haven’t already done so there’s just enough time to get some garlic sown.
I have used cloves from my own crop harvested back in July; they’re a hard neck variety which means I’ll get a flower stalk in the spring (or ‘scrape’) which tastes great in a salad – bonus!
I plant them about 6 inches apart with about 10 inches between the rows and about an inch below the surface of the soil. Choose a sunny site with good drainage and keep it weed free. Once planted I cover the bed with some netting to deter the birds from tugging on the newly emerging shoots (do they think it’s a bed of worms?).
I rotate my crops on a four year plan with the aim of preventing any build up of disease.
There have been whisperings recently; on the allotment, in garden centres and nurseries, even on busses and trains….. “it’s the end of the season”. I’m overhearing snippets of conversations over garden fences as I trot along to my kitchen garden; “I hate the end of summer”, “it’s so sad when it’s all over”. It seems the whisperings and rumours may be true…..a Sunday visit to the allotment in high summer brings me to a crowded, happily noisy place full of activity and excitement…….but my most recent visits have brought me to a ghost town or, rather, a ghost garden.
Across the site the lawnmowers and strimmers have been silenced and are locked away, the shed doors are firmly shut, the garden furniture and bunting are packed away, bean poles, all around, are empty, falling down at crazy angles casting shadows on bare soil which are reminiscent of a Nash painting, the kids toys have been taken back to garages and homes to be forgotten for a few months……I hardly recognise the site until I get to my own little patch of it.
For me there is no such thing as the ‘end of the season’ only a change of season…..and it’s the busiest of all seasons for me. In the spring we dig and sow….in the autumn I dig and sow…..but I also harvest and harvest some more. There seem not enough hours in the day just for the harvesting, cooking, bottling, storing….never mind the digging and sowing. Hours and hours will be spent in the kitchen to make sure all my hard work will be preserved and stored to last through the months ahead.
There is no winding-down on my little patch at this time; there is no ‘end’….just a lot of ‘beginnings’. This is the perfect time of year to begin to redesign the space to make the most of every inch, to dig out those much-needed new beds, to build new structures…..this truly is the busy time. It should be called Spring! I don’t mind that the majority of those on my site disappear for 6 months at this time of year – it means I get the place to myself – I’m just a bit sad for them that they miss out on some of the fun and the food still to come.
Happy “start of a new season” everyone.
Growing veggies rewinds me back to being a giddy 6 year old. I marvel at, and become overly excited by, the sight of plants producing big, fat veggies. That teeny, tiny seed I saved from last year and sowed this year has turned into a monster plant laden with…….and here’s the exciting bit….stuff that I can actually eat!
The most childishly joyful part of veg growing though is, surely, the unearthing of our root crops. We never know quite how well (or badly) they have done until we pull them or dig them out of their earthy beds. Carrots and parsnips invariably draw giggles as they come out of the ground in all their misshapen, sometimes naughtily so, glory….and there will always be the prize parsnip, longer than anything we’ve ever grown before, which cannot be eaten until at least half of our friends, family, facebook pals have had a chance to marvel at it’s size…..
But the best, the absolute best, is doing a ‘pirate’…..(fancy dress is not obligatory but does help)……when we go digging for buried treasure. Except the treasure isn’t gold but, rather, potatoes. I will never ever cease to be made a bit giddy by this act. Where to place the fork? Too near and you may spear them…….too far and you may miss them….. The act is best performed after a few dry days….but, heck, never mind waiting there’s treasure to be found. All potato digging should be done with a pirate accent. Arrrrrrrr.
Weeks later, the now idle potato bed is ready to be dug over and sown with winter green manure……..but wait……..the treasure still comes….clearing the beds for autumn/winter sowing and revealing yet more of these little treasures I can’t help but let out little squeals of piratic joy.
Being on the plot makes me a kid……being on the plot makes me a pirate. Let the squeals of childish joy ring out.
The days are getting a little shorter….but the to-do list is getting longer:
Remove/compost plants which have stopped producing.
Dig over the empty spaces, weeding as I go (esp. perennial weeds!)
Prepare empty beds for sowing of green manures.
Sow green manures.
Sow overwintering broad beans.
Continue to harvest (leave enough time to cook/bottle/store).
Prepare spaces for storing/get bottling equipment ready.
Check winter crops for disease/pest damage etc and remove/burn diseased plants if any.
Dead head flowers to prolong/start gathering seed from those gone over.
Clean bean poles/other supports ready for storing.
If time: dig out new bed (!!!)
Browse seed catalogue.
Plan new shed.