‘To dwell is to garden.’

Martin Heidegger

If there is anything that makes us appreciate and reflect upon the passing of time it has to be gardening. When we garden, things are governed by the days, weeks, months, seasons and years in a way that is often forgotten in our everyday lives. We are acutely aware of just how quickly time passes as a myriad of jobs lie waiting for us in the garden and as weeds creep up in the blink of an eye and seeds wait to be planted. Yet at the same time we can talk of a newly-planted shrub and think ‘perhaps it will take a few years to flower properly’ as if a few years were a few days.

One would think that gardening would be a battle against time and the elements; a frantic attempt to keep on top of things and complete a list of jobs according to a strict timetable. It is of course and sometimes that can get on top of us but the strange thing is that despite this profound awareness of the passing hours and days, gardening is simultaneously about losing oneself in time. When we garden, as all gardeners will no doubt agree, we are at once acutely aware of time and yet strangely outside of it as we immerse ourselves in the task at hand.  It is a form of meditation, of clearing the mind in a way that for many is seemingly impossible in ordinary day to day life (or even perhaps via the route of meditation); just as painting is or indeed any other skill or craft that requires sustained and complete absorption.

When we think of the garden, we also automatically relate its progress (or lack of) to points of time in our own lives and this gives it an added poignancy.  I think that is why gardens are so loved – they stand as reflections of our own lives and the time that has passed yet they also look to the future and represent a kind of hope. They appeal to us as temporal beings; as beings that exist with past, present and future combined simultaneously. There is a brilliant quote from Roy Strong about gardens and hope (maybe in his lovely book The Laskett) – I shall try to find it.

Being out in the garden yesterday made me think about this and reflect on the connection with the natural world that we have lost. The Japanese practice of ‘Shinrinyoku’ or ‘forest bathing’ seeks to restore this equilibrium with some excellent results on moods, stress levels and the immune system (see here), but perhaps we need only go out to the garden  (if we are lucky enough to have one) rather than find a forest  to achieve similar results.

Apart from the physicality of gardening, there is an added bonus that if we are able to grow a few vegetables we are also benefitting our health by avoiding the ever-present chemicals that are used in the soil or sprayed on the produce (and even added with the packaging process – see my article on the interview with Joanna Blythman, author of Swallow This: Serving Up the Food Industry’s Darkest Secrets).

Within the Paleo scene, there is a huge emphasis placed on the providence of our food (especially meat and other animal products) and although I was concerned about these things before, I am doubly aware of them now. Growing vegetables gives us an element of control over the quality of our food. Buying organic produce in the supermarket is expensive and to be honest, I would rather trust our own vegetables. We do have a monthly farmers market and we are also very lucky to have a superb organic garden shop relatively near to us but these options are not always practical. Hence our heroic efforts each year to tackle weeds and restore our vegetable garden to its former glory.

We have recently acquired a huge amount of woodchip to go around the beds and so Easter weekend was spent putting weed control fabric down and woodchipping over it and cleaning the greenhouses. Of course these are jobs that should have been done months ago but I have been trying hard not to beat myself up over it and just being persistent in doing what I can. I think that’s a good way to go – not only with gardens but with everything else –  otherwise it all becomes too much. In the wonderful weather that we have had, shovelling woodchip with the robins hopping around us, and watching the vegetable garden take shape has been a joy.

An essential piece of kit for the garden has been our Vitapod propagator. Unfortunately its power socket was damaged and so we have just received a replacement for it. The previous model had a power socket that could not be detached from the main body of the propagator and the company has rectified this design fault and replaced the damaged power socket for a small fee. The Vitapod was an invaluable purchase (a birthday present from R) and I cannot recommend it highly enough. We start many of our seedlings off in there before transferring to the greenhouse.

We used to have two large polytunnels (cheap ones – not the amazingly sturdy professional polytunnels that I covet) and after particularly windy days these were often found strewn across the surrounding area – accompanied by upturned pots of tomatoes and basil – despite anchoring them down with enormous stones and planks of wood. In the end we had to get rid of them as the wind had bent the metal structure so much that we could not put them back together. I think that until we can get a robust model we will stick to the greenhouses.

We hope to grow a modest crop this year (as last year). The usual courgettes, a few tomatoes, spring onions, chard and kale, cabbages, parsley, chives, basil, cucumbers, beets and lettuces. I didn’t bother trying with chillies, peppers or aubergines after the first couple of years as we just don’t seem to get a long enough season (waiting until we make that move to somewhere warmer!) but April is the last chance to plant chilli seedlings so I may give them another go. Our garlic came out ridiculously small last year, so we took a break but will plant again in the winter this year. We used to grow a ton of potatoes (early, mid and late) and also beans but now we do not eat them, so it frees up space for other crops. I have bought a few different seeds this year – some oriental salad crops and different types of tomato and cucumbers – so will update on their progress here. I always go to The Real Seed Catalogue (in Wales) to buy vegetable seeds. I find them excellent and they have some really unusual varieties. They are also really helpful and are always ready to give advice on the telephone too.

I am very keen to begin fermenting some of the vegetables we grow. My initial foray into sauerkraut is still bubbling away in the cupboard and fingers crossed it will taste good. I have read lots of fermenting disaster stories where the whole lot has to be thrown away, so I am hoping that ours survives. Eating fermented foods brings enormous benefits to our gut microbes and so I want to increase the amount of these foods in our diet. Also, preserving food is an important consideration after so much effort goes into growing it. I made chutneys, jams, jellies and marmalades for many years but stopped (apart from a few Christmas presents) as we no longer eat them. As a result I have amassed an enormous collection of jars that are unused.

My goal is to have a larder full of preserves once again, only this time without the massive amounts of sugar. A purchase of amazing Kimchi at Hay Market convinced me that there is a whole world of fermentation that needs to be explored. Getting back to growing our own vegetables will hopefully help with this endeavour.  Here’s to losing ourselves in gardening…

Click here for pictures of the vegetable garden and its highs and lows.

With thanks to my darling R, who has worked like a trooper over Easter.

I have just purchased The Art of Fermentation by fermenter extraordinaire Sandor Katz. There is a short documentary that has been made about him called Sandorkraut, so look forward to seeing that. Just listened to a great interview with Sandor at the Food as Medicine Summit (online).

Check out this great article The Politics of Fermentation by fermenter and potter Jeremy Ogusky. Jeremy makes beautiful fermentation crocks, olive oil jugs and other assorted products and is also founder of the Boston Fermentation Festival. I found a lovely article by Jeremy on Alex Lewin’s Feed Me Like You Mean It blog (Alex has also written a book on fermentation called Real Food Fermentation).

And finally…

‘The first supermarket supposedly appeared on the American landscape in 1946. That is not very long ago. Until then, where was all the food? Dear folks, the food was in homes, gardens, local fields, and forests. It was near kitchens, near tables, near bedsides. It was in the pantry, the cellar, the backyard.’
Joel Salatin: Folks, This Ain’t Normal: A Farmer’s Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People, and a Better World

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