Organic, regenerative gardening can be many things: fascinating, rewarding, enriching, life-affirming, illuminating, fulfilling, inspiring and of huge benefit to mind, body and soul. However, anyone who thinks that sometimes I come across as a dewy-eyed, bunny-hugging, slug-snuggling softy when it comes to all things ‘nature’ might well have been a bit shocked to observe my reaction on discovering that something ~ something! 🤬~ had eaten off three of our young tomato plants this week. Actually, not even eaten, just bitten through the stem at the bottom, killing all the top growth. My first thought was slugs, but then when Roger saw a rabbit (nooooo! ) lurking between the pea rows, I thought maybe that was the culprit; the jury is still out, but whatever is doing the damage, it’s hugely frustrating . . . and believe me, I can rant with the best of them. Nature does have a way of seeking balance, however, so rushing to the mandala bed to check on those precious Finnish tomato plants (all present, correct and growing like stink), I noticed the flutter of something rather beautiful amongst all the bee activity in the sage flowers. From frown to smile in seconds; this is the third year I’ve been trying to persuade a swallowtail to sit still long enough for me to catch a decent snap. It’s definitely been worth the wait. 😊
Permaculture talks of the problem being the solution but that isn’t so straightforward when you’re not certain what the problem is, although little diggings around the beds suggests something furry rather than slimy. A quick look at general advice on the internet wasn’t much help, focusing as it did on raised beds, pots and fencing. We don’t garden in raised beds and I have no intention of making any, for tomatoes or anything else; I’ve chosen not to put any tomato plants in pots this year as they are so demanding when it comes to water and don’t produce as many fruits as those that are planted out ~ they are better off with their feet in the ground. We fenced the sweetcorn temporarily against hare attack which was easily done because it’s planted in a block, but I’ve deliberately scattered the tomatoes to all corners of the garden as an anti-blight strategy so fencing is a non-starter.
Putting our heads together, we came up with a two-pronged solution: Roger made deep collars from a roll of thick, flexible plastic something-or-other left over from the renovation work which we fixed round each plant with a bit of duct tape, having first piled anti-slug grit at the bottom of each stem. Hopefully, this will at least give the plants time to reach a good size and be less vulnerable to attack before they outgrow their little guards. Luckily, I planted 35 in my usual overkill habit, so I shouldn’t mourn the losses too much. It’s still a tad frustrating, though, and combined with the current headache of the second drought of the year, I sometimes wonder if it wouldn’t just be easier to throw in the
trowel towel and go to the shops instead . . .
In Vivre Avec La Terre, the authors discuss how from a global perspective, Western peoples are the least able to provide for their essential needs themselves. It’s true that the structure and impetus of our society mean the vast majority of people are unlikely to be able to build their own home, grow or catch food, or make clothes and medicines, skills which it’s possible may again become crucial as the planet and humanity spiral into an uncertain and unstable future. It’s an interesting discussion and something that has touched me for a long time. As a teacher, I railed against the curriculum for upper primary children which was so overwhelmingly academic, allowing very little time for practical activities; even subjects like Design Technology saw more lesson time being spent planning, assessing, evaluating and devising marketing strategies on paper than actually creating whatever was being constructed. The justification was always along the lines of, “Well, we need doctors . . .” ~ yes, we do, but we need many other skilled people, too, and it’s misguided to dismiss manual (from the Latin word manus, meaning ‘hand’) activities as second best. When our son Sam, who is a talented, enthusiastic and innovative cook, was seriously contemplating training as a chef, there were far too many comments from people who felt it would be a ‘waste’ of his brain. What rubbish! Apart from being insulting to chefs (who most definitely use their brains), I pointed out that I would rather have a cheerful chef than a miserable mathematician for a son any day. As things turned out, Sam chose a different path but he is still a dab hand in the kitchen and those skills could well become ever more important through his lifetime.
Human hands must surely be one of the most mind-blowing pieces of engineering on the planet and yet what do we actually do with them? Press buttons, swipe screens, grip steering wheels, grab things from shelves or hangers . . . how often do we get the chance to really use our hands in practical, creative activities of the kind that are both rewarding and totally absorbing? When I researched my family tree some years ago, I came across a paternal ancestor ~ another Samuel, in fact ~ who lived in rural Cumbria in the early nineteenth century; he and his wife were basket makers who both survived well into their nineties and I’ve often wondered if their shared longevity was in part attributable to a life spent using their hands (and yes, brains) to create useful and beautiful items with simple tools and natural materials. Basket-making is something I would dearly love to learn and put into practice if our willows ever get going. In fact, my ambition is to make a new basketwork trug to replace the old wooden faithful when it gives up the ghost.
I have to confess, I love doing things with my hands and will always use the good old-fashioned way of doing something if I can get away with it. Perhaps it does make me a bit of a dinosaur but I would rather do things like whisk mayonnaise or make pastry by hand rather than using a food processor. My spinning wheel is a favourite tool, powered only by the gentle treadling of my right foot; in fact, I am fond of any such tools that are simple yet efficient, they have such a timelessness about them and of course, no need for fossil fuels of any kind.
Reducing our reliance on fossil fuels is an important issue where creating a regenerative and resilient garden ~ and indeed, lifestyle ~ is concerned and one which I am all too happy to embrace. I love the fact that I can produce oodles of fresh, nutritious food without any need for machines, just time, energy, a few simple tools and my hands . . . and a fair bit of help from Mother Earth, of course! It feels so right, this gentle, nurturing approach that has nothing to do with power, order or control. Sowing seeds, planting out, spreading mulch, watering, tying in . . . these are all such peaceful activities that allow me time to connect not only with the plants in question but the rest of the abundant life in the garden. I don’t need to fuss about aphids on the aubergines when, crouched down to adjust a twine tie, I notice several predatory ladybird larvae on the lower leaves; picking gooseberries is a labour of love that leaves my hands scratched to pieces, but how can I complain when the air is full of bird song and bee buzz? If it takes me all morning to pick, process and preserve by hand whatever is currently cropping, then what does that matter? I can’t think of anything more important I could be doing with my time. It feels like a wonderful privilege.
I feel a particular sense of satisfaction when the carbon footprint of our produce is zero or even negative. Take lettuce, for example, something we are eating daily at the moment as the garden is bursting with them. If I sow seeds that were saved from last year’s crop in soil that has been built using organic materials from the patch and nourished with homemade compost, green manure from self-set or saved seed and homemade fertilisers, watered naturally by rain (I wish!) or with saved rainwater, harvested just minutes before eating raw, then fossil fuel inputs are zero. I have no need to go off-site to find or fetch anything, no need to buy goods or services from others, no need to tap into energy sources for cooking or preserving. The amount of work is minimal, especially given how freely and widely the seed has sown itself this year. If I cut the stem of a lettuce but leave the root in the ground, the plant will regrow to give another harvest and if I deliberately leave some plants to bolt and flower, there should be seed to save for next year. Any outer leaves not eaten can be scattered on the surface of the soil as a mulch or added to the compost heap. The whole process is a closed loop which has provided us with a huge ongoing harvest and hasn’t cost a penny; in fact, we could be providing others in the community with fresh, organic lettuce ( and courgettes, strawberries, peas, broad beans, herbs . . . ) too, if I could find the right mechanism for making that work.
Of course, it’s not always quite that simple. I can press apples by hand until the cows come home but if I want to preserve the juice by pasteurising or freezing, then I need energy inputs. The elderflowers I’ve been picking this week will dry happily on a sunny windowsill to be stored for winter teas and medicines but to make cordial, I not only need to use the electric cooker but to buy sugar, oranges and lemons, too. I think the key as with so many things, is the goal of reduction rather than perfection and I’ve long believed that the most important of the 5 Rs (or however many are fashionable these days) is ‘reduce.’ If everyone cut back even in a small way on everything they consumed or used, then I think we would be in a much stronger and happier position to face the future. Roger and I would like to tap into solar power far more than we are currently doing and a solar oven and dehydrator are two of the projects we’re considering; in the meantime, paying attention to just how much energy (and other things) we consume and doing whatever we can to bring those figures down is a big priority . . . and the garden is a good indicator of how we’re doing.
Where flowers are concerned, it’s much the same story. For starters, our whole approach of working with nature and encouraging biodiversity means that we have every excuse for letting wild flowers proliferate and do their own abundant thing. It’s lazy gardening at its best and I’m not sure we could improve on it.
The mandala bed is probably the most formal looking in the whole garden and yet it was created totally by hand from waste materials: cardboard, grass clippings, hay, sawdust, twiggy sticks, compost, molehills, shredded hedge prunings and a large rock all from on-site, herb plants raised from saved seeds and strawberries from runners. The only annual plants to go in there are spares from the potager as I don’t grow anything specially for it. No machinery, no fossil fuels, no external inputs, no cost and minimum maintenance; in fact, picking the strawberries has seen me spending more time in there over the last few days than the whole year put together.
As perennials generally have the reputation of being better subjects in regenerative growing than annuals ~ hence the focus on forest gardens, edible hedges and perennial vegetables ~ I have been making a concerted effort to move away from annuals flowers in the bigger beds by planting perennials grown from seed such as lupins, granny’s bonnets, echinacea, gaillardias and scabious plus other bits and pieces sourced from nurseries and the plant swap. Mmm, I’m not really sure why I’m bothering because I think this is a case where volunteer annuals are merrily recreating a flower bed year after year with total disregard for my endeavours. I might just have to accept defeat on this one . . . and as we’re talking zero maintenance, maximum colour and high density insect life, perhaps it’s not such a bad idea after all.
I’m not totally redundant: a few climbers have needed a little tying in to their supports here and there . . .
. . . although in most places, they’re happy just to scramble about without any help whatsoever.
Despite the riot of floral colour around the house and in the meadow areas, one of my favourite spots at the moment is the Not Garden; here, nestled in the cooler green of semi-shade, wonderful things are happening in the potato patch. The white ‘Charlotte’ and mauve ‘Blue Danube’ have burst into flower bringing a beauty all of their own to the space but fear not, despite first appearances this is definitely not a case of monoculture! Mingled amongst and around the potatoes are the starry white flowers of horseradish and rocket, the dainty yellow of landcress, cheerful orange of calendula, soft mauve of chives, bright pops of crimson from ruby chard and sorrel, lettuce here, there and everywhere, the trefoil foliage of oca, succulent spear-shaped leaves of New Zealand spinach and the first blue borage flowers right on the cusp of opening. Oh, and a leek left to flower and set seed, too. I love patches like this: needing nothing more than an occasional mulch, they provide us with a wonderful variety of foods all produced in a chaotic jumble of vibrant and vigorous growth. It’s not quite food for free (we did buy a few new seed potatoes to add to our saved ones this year) but it’s not far off. Not a slug or bunny in sight, either. Perhaps I’ll carry on with this gardening lark for a bit longer, then. 😉