About this blog

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Wales, United Kingdom
In autumn 2010, my husband Ian and I both quit our jobs, sold our house and left the flatlands of the east for the mountains of Wales. Our goal is to create a more self-sufficient lifestyle in a place we actually like living. Whilst Ian will continue to earn some money as a freelancer, my part of the project is to reduce how much we spend by growing and making as much of what we need as possible. The purpose of this blog is to keep friends updated with how the grand project is progressing, but all are welcome here. If you're not a friend already, well perhaps you might become one.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Thoughts on gardening

Today marks the fifth anniversary of us buying our house here. I was going to write a post about what I've learnt over the last five years, but failed to get my thoughts in any kind of order, so here's a more focused post on gardening, that I started a little while ago.

I have gradually come to the conclusion that I'm not much of a gardener. Or, to put it in a more positive light, I'm more of a forager than a gardener. My foraging challenge was a huge success, overshooting the target of 52 wild foods by some margin, whereas my gardening challenge fizzled out after a few weeks (I just mistyped that as a a few weeds. I was tempted to leave it.) If we go back to the beginning, it was elderflower champagne that inspired me to try this lifestyle. The tree may have been growing in my garden, but those were foraged flowers, not cultivated. The part of gardening that I really like is harvesting.


Elder trees also produce berries, if you don't pick all of the flowers

I've tried to embrace the idea that I should garden for the sake of the activity, not the end result, but without much success. If I'm honest, I only really enjoy gardening when I see results. Digging over a patch of ground is very satisfying because it completely transforms it (the workout is good, too). Planting out seedlings can be good, if the bed looks tidy and full of promise at the end of the job. Weeding too, to some extent, but only if the bed was very untidy to start with, and really, that's just housework outdoors, and housework is not my forte. Ultimately, though, it's all about the harvest. Try as I might, I can't see the point of sowing carrots if I don't get to eat carrots. I did sow carrots this year, but saw no sign of them. I can only assume that the slugs got them all as soon as they appeared. I find this very demoralizing.

After writing the previous paragraph, I went back and re-read Eco Cat Lady's The Mythical Land of Done (part of an earlier conversation on the subject of my garden anxiety), which puts the Do things for their own sake argument very clearly. She uses the example of doing the dishes, which is a task you can never get done because there are always more, so it's futile to think in terms of getting the job out of the way. I think I get it. The other day I chose to do a bit of gardening before going out, and reflected that I'd be enjoying it a lot more if I hadn't given myself a deadline for getting the task finished. Indeed, I have learned to stop hating the dishes, and accept the task as part of my day. Still, though, I don't do the dishes for the sake of doing the activity; I do them for the sake of having clean dishes, in the same way that I plant vegetables for the sake of eating vegetables.

OK, trying to make sense of this... There are very few things we do for their own sake; eating and drinking, singing and dancing, you can probably think of one or two others. Most things we do for the sake of the end result, be if we focus too much on the result, we risk rushing through trying to tick things off without appreciating that all that doing is what life is made of. Yes, the point of doing the dishes is to get clean dishes, but try to accept that the task is part of life and engage with it, rather than wishing is was done. How does this relate to gardening? Well, it leaves harvestable veg as the main point of growing veg. If I'm not getting a harvest I'm happy with, it's a waste of time trying to grow the plants, even if the activity is fairly enjoyable. At the same time, it shouldn't feel like a terrible chore going out into the garden. If I'm having to really push myself to do it, I should either change my attitude, or stop.

There's another thing: Slugs. They eat tiny seedlings with no regard for letting plants get bigger. If only they'd leave them to grow a bit, there'd be enough to share, but they won't. Four years after my first asparagus seedlings, there's just one plant left. The slugs ate all the spears as soon as they emerged and didn't give the plants a chance to build up their strength, so they all died. I had forty; I now have one. This upset me a lot. Even so, I will not use slug pellets. It's not a nice way to die and, whatever the manufacturers say, I can't believe they won't end up poisoning animals that prey on slugs, which I'd much rather encourage. Instead, I stamp on the slugs, which I hate doing. I really, really hate it. This does not make it pleasant to be out in the garden.

Looking back at blog posts from previous years, I see that gardening has caused me considerable anxiety from the start. Maybe I should just give it up.

No!

No, I really don't like that idea at all. Why not?

Yesterday, I picked a few green beans and some peas, and that made me happy in the same way that foraging makes me happy. I really do like the harvesting part, and I'd be sorry to lose it. In that case, I need to find a more positive attitude to gardening so I can carry on doing it. Firstly, I have to deal with those slugs. I've tried copper wire, I've tried beer traps, I've tried ash and egg shells, and none of these have much impact. I can't bear stamping on them and the current approach of staring at them in resignation isn't doing any good at all. I went out to pick a couple of leeks this evening and found a dozen baby slugs on one leaf. One leaf! In the absence of better alternatives, I shall return to Plan A and relocate them. This time, though, I won't be assuming that a railway is sufficient barrier to stop them coming back. No, I'll relocate them just a little further away, into the stream. Just upstream of the waterfall. It may be less humane than stamping on them, but better than many of the alternatives. They may even survive (slugs don't drown. Putting them in a bucket of water has to be the worst way of getting rid of them. Zombie slugs!) but surely won't come back up a waterfall? Surely not?

OK, that's my plan for dealing with slugs, now how about the demoralizing lack of results? I think I can divide veg into three categories: A few, namely potatoes, peas and green beans, seem to grow reasonably well in my garden. I might not get a huge crop, but I'll almost certainly get something from them. Leeks, broccoli and parsnips can be nudged into this category with a bit of TLC (mostly slug defenses). These are the veg I should focus on, those that will almost certainly reward my efforts with some sort of a crop. There are others that I haven't yet managed to get a decent crop from: Carrots and onions fail consistently (I had some success with shallots, but the price of sets made that far too expensive as an alternative to onions) which are so cheap to buy that I don't mind too much if I can't grow them. More disappointingly, I've yet to get a decent tomato crop - I just can't give them the consistency of care that they need. Occasionally forgetting to close the greenhouse skylight on a chilly night does tomatoes no good at all. I've decided to stop trying to grow these crops, as it's just setting myself up for disappointment. Finally, there are those that are less predictable: Cabbages, courgettes, pumpkins, sweetcorn, broad beans. These might produce large amounts of delicious food, or might fail completely. If I'm going to grow these, I need to accept that it's a gamble. I'm not a gambler by nature, so this isn't easy for me, but I'll give it a go. These will be the ones to go by the wayside if I'm finding it all a bit much, and if I do get them in the ground, it'll be a bonus if I get anything from them.

This, then, is my plan for re-engaging with the garden. Focus my efforts on things that are fairly reliable, don't bother with things that never do well, try to accept the unpredictable nature of those in between, and throw slugs over the waterfall.

6 comments:

  1. Your post has made me think about my attitude to gardening (and to re-read Eco Cat Lady's post on being done).

    I have an allotment, and I've realised that my attitude to it is quite odd. I LOVE digging it over (as you say, it completely transforms the plot) and I don't mind most other tasks...except harvesting stuff. I get really lazy about harvesting. I think this might be because harvesting stuff inevitably creates another task- sorting potatoes, cooking or storing whatever it is.

    I realise this is very silly as the whole point of growing food is to harvest and eat it! It has been better this year as I have grown things I really like to eat (peas, green beans, squash, NO BRASSICAS).

    I'm not quite sure how to change this- although I suspect having a larger freezer would help, as our current freezer is not sufficient for storing allotment produce, and 'what do do with all this food' is a bit of an issue.

    It might help to get rid of the 'not looking after my allotment' guilt...

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    1. Oh yes, I can relate to the 'creating another job' thing. I was at my sister's last week and she made chicken stock, then said, "I hate having to deal with it when it's made." This puzzled me because I just put a sieve over a basin, tip the whole lot in, then lift the sieve out and dump contents on the compost heap. I thought for a minute then said, "Do you not have a big sieve?" That was it. Sometimes missing the simplest thing makes a job much harder than it needs to be. Admittedly, a big freezer is a much larger investment than a sieve, though.

      I've got quite interested in pre-electricity methods of preserving, like fermentation. I wonder if that kind of thing might make your harvest more fun, if the preservation was entertaining in itself?

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    2. I've not though about using non-freezer methods- though I fear I would see it as another chore! I made jam for the first time this year- the kitchen is still sticky! I also thought about making fruit leather (which I think you have blogged about) but in the end made blackberry crumble.

      Actually, thinking about it, I enjoyed going blackberry picking- perhaps because the blackberries were free and involved a small time investment, so I felt less pressure to do something with them- perhaps also because I went picking with a friend, which was fun.

      I think I need to look at different methods of preserving, consider buying a second freezer and learn to accept that I have to use the food when it is picked!!

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    3. If it's another chore, that wouldn't help at all. It has to be fun. If you have funds and space for a bigger freezer, that would be the easiest option. We invested in a big chest freezer when we moved here and we have a little one in the kitchen. The kitchen one is used for processing, e.g. freezing peas on a tray, then when I have a bagful, they go down to the big freezer. It's very satisfying seeing the stocks build up, thought to be honest, I don't harvest nearly enough veg to warrant such a big freezer (maybe one day!) but then we found that we can buy meat from a local farm if we buy in bulk, so it's earning it's keep storing meat, instead.

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  2. Ha! I need to take my own advice in terms of the dishes because... oy... the kitchen is a mess! Oh well...

    I think your plan sounds like a really good idea. That's sorta the approach I've been taking and honestly, this was my best gardening year yet! I think I tend to get myself tied in knots because I feel like I have to do everything in the most frugal and ecological way possible... which ends up meaning a LOT more work.

    So I finally decided that perhaps compromise was the better part of valor. Investing in the "hail house" seemed a bit crazy but it made a HUGE difference in my outlook. And lowering my standards a bit and allowing myself to use some organic fertilizer in addition to compost and manure made a big difference in terms of the harvest. So did my irrigation system. In fact, I've decided that I'm gonna set up a similar drip system for the xeriscape in the front yard because even though it doesn't need much water, it does need SOME water, and I just can't seem to keep up with it. It's just demoralizing when everything dies for lack of water.

    I wish I had some sort of advice for you in the slug department, but since I've never even seen one, I have no experience there. But I did give up on growing kale because it just gets completely infested with aphids... really, not worth the effort! I am toying with trying some winter spinach this year, but we'll see if I get up the energy to put it in or not.

    I guess bottom line, I think I'm coming to the conclusion that it's OK to loosen up a bit in the service of making things more fun so that I want to keep doing it. This was all brought into sharper focus for me recently. I have two friends who have both been inspirations for me in terms of low water xerixcaping. Both did their yards completely "by hand" - no irrigation systems, no weed block... completely "eco-friendly" but pretty high maintenance.

    Then both houses ended up being sold... one friend fell on hard times financially and had to sell, the other died tragically. Anyhow, within a few months of both houses being sold, the xeriscapes were dug up, sprinkler systems were installed, and both houses are back to having water-guzzling lawns. I couldn't help but think that had either of my friends been willing to lower their standards a bit and install a drip irrigation system, or weed block, or something to make it less work than a lawn then those beautiful gardens might still be there.

    Anyhow... here's hoping you can find a way to make gardening work for you! :-)

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    1. I also try to do things in the most frugal, ecological way possible, which ends up meaning lots of weeds and poor harvests! I'll have to see how best to move on from this, but I think you're right that demanding impossible standards for ourselves can be counterproductive. I'm struggling to relate to your slug-free, drought-tolerant gardens, though!

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