When gardening took hold

I haven’t always been a gardener.

My good friend Andrew O’Brien recently invited me for a brief chat on the latest episode of his beautiful podcast and he asked me about my gardening. Has it always been there? When did it begin?

The answer to the first of those questions is no. Gardening, growing my own fruit and vegetables, has not always been a part of my identity. Of course, I grew cress at school. I imagine most of us has a memory of growing a green head of hair on an eggshell figure. It grows quickly and it held my attention. But it was more about the comical value of the face, felt tip penned on an empty eggshell than the organic nature or the joy of growing something from seed.

My grandfather was a market gardener. He’d retired long before I emerged on the face of this planet. However, he was unwilling to let the veg growing slip away and so he turned the garden of their 1950s semi-detached into a large vegetable patch.

Despite having no interest in growing fruit and vegetables as a child, I have a vivid memory of this garden. My brother, cousins and I played hide and seek amongst the neat rows of vegetables on the Sundays we visited my grandparents for lunch. My grandfather would also pay us to catch the Pieris rapae (small white) butterflies that laid their eggs on his cabbages and whose caterpillars would decimate the crop. I refused to do this to these creatures even then.

It may be that spending those fun-filled days amongst my grandfather’s great vegetable garden did leave me with a mark. An unconscious attachment to growing vegetables to be awakened in later life when the right trigger emerged. I don’t know. If this is indeed true, then I do know that the trigger that started the passion I now have for growing my own fruit and vegetables was food. My love of food and to cook.

That leads me to the second question. When did it all begin? That answer is very clear to me.

Twelve years ago, in early spring I came to have a packet of tomato seeds. I cannot now remember where the seeds come from or even the variety although I suspect they were gardeners delight. I had no garden to speak of, just a concrete yard with a small plastic greenhouse. I threw a few tomato seeds in a pot and with little knowledge or experience, I waited to see what would happen.

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What followed became an obsession. First, it was about waiting. Patiently watching the surface of the compost under which were the tomato seeds I’d sown. Then it was about watching in amazement as the plants grew. Finally, it was about pulling a ripe tomato from the vine and popping it, still warm, into my mouth. It was heaven.

Waiting for those first green shoots to poke through, I recall each day I wondered if I had done it right. Was the compost wet enough? Was it too wet? Was the pot in the right place and did it have enough heat? I can say this now as I’m a dad and I remember the experience of waiting for Ava to arrive. Yes, waiting for the seeds of vegetable plants to emerge is exactly like being an expectant father. Although when they do arrive I don’t lose as much sleep and I have a very different relationship with poo.

In that same year, Carol Klein presented a six-part series on the BBC – Grow your own veg. The programme arrived at the time my passion for growing my own was emerging and as I watched it on the TV, I was hooked. I placed my name on the local allotment list and bought the book accompanying the series.

Over the last 12 years, I’ve not always had an allotment. Changes in life and location have meant I had to give it up or not be in a suitable place that I could have one. I still grew what I could with what I had though. I couldn’t not grow something. I can’t ever be without it.

Let me talk about experts. I am certainly not one. I don’t think a lifetime of allotment gardening would qualify me as such even then. I am a passionate learner. In fact, the thrill of discovery is such a glorious experience for me, I hope never to be an expert. How drab to know it all.

Stories are wonderful. Reference books provide only so much. It is stories that place people at the heart of events. Our natural curiosity of the lives of others is a useful disposition as it provides knowledge and understanding. It can make us self-aware but more importantly, it enables us to relate and in turn become inspired.

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We are not machines. We’re human. Being human means we have quirks. We get excited. We have enthusiasm. We dream about the things we are passionate about or plan to become passionate about. We also compare and contrast and we suffer the consequence of doing so. Especially in the beginning when things are a bit difficult.

Through the stories of other allotment gardeners – your stories – I’ve been boosted when my motivation slips (which it does) and I need a jog (which I do) as to why I love growing my own fruit and vegetables so much.

I love growing my own vegetables for so many reasons. I find it very difficult to specify exactly why it grabs me as much as it does. It is certainly about food. The relationship between the crops I grow and the food I cook is entwined. But it has become much more. My wellbeing. My way of connecting with nature and my environment and in turn my ability to learn about that environment and realise how dependent we are upon it and how fragile it is.

I don’t have any regrets in life. I’ve made mistakes and I’ve learned from them. They have made me into the person I am. However, I do wish I had begun gardening earlier. The annual experiences I get from doing it are so wonderful, so fulfilling. I hope I have many years ahead of me to milk out as much of it as possible.

Gardening is so often a personal experience. On the surface, we probably share the same reasons for doing it, but it’s deeper than that. Have a think and answer the same questions Andrew put to me. Has it always been there? When did it begin? I’d love to hear your stories so drop me a comment below.


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