This has been an incredible year. The pandemic has affected every single one of us across the world. There have been awful moments with many losing family members and friends and suffering the consequences of a crushed economy. It has been a year that has forced many of us to look at our lives and our society through a different lens. Despite so many restrictions being placed on us, and having to isolate to protect our families and the NHS, it feels that many of us have become closer connected – supportive to our communities and aware of our actions on the environment.
I’m not keen on New Year resolutions, but I am one that reflects. This is not an exhaustive list – I have many things I want to take forward but here’s some of the actions I consider important in my own gardening life as we enter a New Year:
1. Allotment or garden every day. Last year was about restriction. However, in many ways, the changes in my life resulted in more freedom and flexibility with the things that make a real difference to me and my wellbeing. Before the pandemic, I had a regimented routine of school runs and travel to and from an office. The ability to work from home, which I realise is a huge privilege, has enabled me to break with that structure and constraint. I start work early if I choose and I’ve been able to get to the allotment during lunch or after work most days. Having that contact with my plot, my plants and the soil has been a powerful remedy to the bleakness of living in the midst of a global health crisis.
Many of us, even those with gardens and allotments are guilty of taking nature and the environment for granted. And 2020 found us out. In an essay for Emergence Magazine, the naturalist Michael McCarthy explored how the anthropause caused by the coronavirus made nature visible again. I think it also chopped away some of our human arrogance and reminded us that we are nature, not separated from it nor above it and we need it not as a commodity to be bought and sold, or as a nice to have, but as a gift which requires responsibility as well as our appreciation in order to fully live.
2. Expand knowledge. I read a lot of books and articles about gardening. This makes sense as I’m an allotment gardener looking to expand on the way I grow and produce food and flowers. However, gardening in the narrow sense, in isolation, without understanding or appreciating the interconnectedness of the wider environment and all that inhabit it is short sighted and lacking. Last year, through restrictions and less distraction, I took the opportunity to read more than I have before. I explored books on the issues of our wider environment, our wellbeing, our structural discrimination of peoples.
There are those who will say they just want to garden, they want to scroll through their social media feeds and like photos of flowers in bloom or marvel at baskets of potatoes and French beans – I say we are better than this and we owe it to our environment and our fellow beings to ensure we expand our knowledge and that it goes further than our own back gardens and allotment plots. That we read wider and that we listen further and from different sources. This isn’t just a nod of acknowledgement, this is a way to review and expand our understanding and to improve our own and other peoples experiences of gardening, food and our natural world. I’ll share the stories and books that have already expanded my own knowledge and those that do so in the future here on the blog and on my Instagram.
3. Keep a gardening journal. Journaling has an array of benefits and certainly as a record and a reflection of your experiences of keeping an allotment or kitchen garden. A journal is a way of taking the pressure of remembering off our minds. It is a practice that enables us to organise and plan but also reflect and consider our accomplishments and our mistakes. It can be a repository of thoughts, ideas and plans and these can be written, doodled or even cut out of magazines and stuck down with glue.
I have kept an allotment diary for a few of years, I even wrote a blog post on why the process is so useful, but I confess there are plenty of blank pages inside each one. This year, I will focus more on writing about the practice of gardening each day. It will be a record of seeds sown, plants bought and harvests gathered. It will also be a reflection on my feelings and senses and of the whole holistic experience gardening and growing food provides.
4. To grow more food and save more seed. Maybe it’s the experiences of the last year. The fragility of our current systems, food practices and logistics. Not to adopt a protectionist attitude to look after only me and my own, but to savour and value the opportunity I have to grow food to feed family and friends – to have a little self-reliance perhaps. Also to do justice to the space I have and to use it even more than I have in the past. Growing food is a very powerful act. It gives you some control over the varieties you grow and the way you choose to grow them. This power is magnified when you save seed from your crops too. Then you get to defy the small number of multinational corporations who otherwise decide for you. Engaging in the process, saving seeds and sharing those with others is rich and rewarding.
I find nothing quite as pleasurable as looking down at a plate of food knowing that I grew it. I sowed the seeds and nurtured the plant and the soil in which it grew. As I enjoyed freshly picked salad leaves from the polytunnel this winter, I realised that the polytunnel had provided food for our kitchen almost continuously for 20 months – since it was first erected in March 2019. Isn’t that marvellous? I’m very lucky to have the space I have and intend to use it the best of my abilities. Also, growing vegetables whether on an allotment, in a garden or even few small pots on windowsill takes away the anonymity that we so often have about the food we place in our mouths. Growing vegetables is a way to provide a direct connection to the soil and our environment and I intend to spoon up as much of that experience as possible.
6. Peat free gardening. This is a continuing commitment for me as I stopped using peat based composts a year ago. Recently, Monty Don was blasted by the garden industry for his plea to us gardeners to stop using peat in our gardens. This is a not a new stance by Monty – In 2002 he wrote an article in The Guardian urging gardeners to stop buying peat based products for their little havens. At the time of the article’s publication, it was reckoned that 95 per cent of British peat bogs had been lost to gardeners and their reliance on peat-based compost. That was 18 years ago!
Peat has been used for so long because it’s cheap and reliable. It’s attractive, smells good and is easy to handle. It’s light, retains moisture well and still drains freely. It’s sterile, so can be used on a commercial basis without the concern of diseases being spread by it. The garden industry has a vested financial interest in using it. However, no matter what big horticulture say, it is completely unnecessary. Peat is made up of decayed organic matter and vegetation and has developed under particular, wet conditions over thousands of years. Peatlands make a home to a unique and diverse ecosystem. Peat, left in the ground, acts as a carbon store – the UK’s peatlands store around 3.2 billion tonnes of carbon – and plays a vital role in tackling our climate crisis.
We cannot create our own beautiful havens in the form of our gardens and allotments while playing an active role in destroying another. We need to choose peat free composts and continue to demand peat free composts and plants grown peat free from the industry. Peat free compost isn’t the cheapest – there is always a cost even if it’s not at the expense of your bank balance – but the more we demand peat free composts the more the price will come down. I currently use compost from Dalefoot – its wonderful stuff. Dalefoot are also actively working to restore peatlands, pioneering innovate restoration techniques. This film shows the work they did with Cumbria Wildlife Trust.
9. To write again. I lost my writing mojo. Probably before the pandemic but certainly during the last year I have written very little. I started this blog five years ago and most years I wrote a blog post every week. I struggle with the idea of myself as a writer but I enjoy the process and I think I have become better at it. Many of my posts are functional outpouring. It is an approach that helps me learn and clarify my thoughts on a topic or provide a way of reminding myself of what I am doing or plan to do. I have missed it, but I just couldn’t find the motivation to sit down and write – despite spending such a long period at home. I’m returning today and writing this post has been a way to allow me to unlock the door and let the thoughts in my head drop onto the (digital) piece of paper again. I’d love to have you along for the journey.
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