For the most part, food growing in urban spaces means compromise - alterations for space, for capacity to care and for security. This summer, we've been doing a lot in the alleys - tiny shared spaces that sit at the rear of the back-to-back terraces that are typical of central Middlesbrough. At best, they are quiet, peaceful, beautiful and, useful for gardens, warm and sheltered. At worst they have challenges that have included flytipping, misuse of bins, vandalism and theft. But we're all about making things wonderful!
There is a general consensus that wildflower area = low maintenance. If this is something you're considering on that basis, STOP now! Stunning in full flower, meadows are very special places, and having been lucky enough in a past life to spend a hazy summer surveying them in upper Teesdale, they hold a special place in my heart. But, like all areas of planting, they require care and attention.
It's peak sowing and planting season at the moment and I'm working on A LOT of gardens! I really, truly believe that so much understanding about plants has been lost in recent years, and identifying them, and knowing how they can be useful will become more and more important as artificial resources become scarcer. So I like to use every opportunity to share a bit of knowledge.
I have been lucky enough to be involved in a longstanding project to improve the alleyways that lie between the back-to-back terraces in my town. I can't even begin to describe just how dreadful some of these are - full of rubbish and flytipped waste, dog and cat faeces and the scene of various criminal acts. But slowly, slowly we have been turning things around. I can't take any credit for this - it is down to a group of people, people I now include amongst my friends, that we've collectively nicknamed the 'Alleypals!'
I am taking part in a six session course in Biodynamic Gardening; this weekend was weekend one, with the others spread across the year until July.
If you're unfamiliar with Biodynamics (and I most definitely am!) then it's a holistic approach to gardening that accounts not just for the plant, but its whole environment, including influences such as the moon. Growing is quite strictly governed by principles that include the use of specific 'preparations' and certain activities at very definite points. I'm a scientist at heart, and whilst some of the ideas stretch my imagination, it's always nice to find new ways of doing things and expanding on what I know.
Every year, without exception, I promise myself I will start planting in good time, and every year I fail. (I also swear not to sow too many tomatoes, to label everything meticulously and to not plant out too closely - equally unsuccessful).
For the last week, planting broad beans has been on my daily list of things to do and at the eleventh hour, the close of the last day of the half term break and in the dark, I finally bit the bullet.
I am a twitcher. There, I've said it. I love the birds in my garden like they were my own children (maybe a little less...) and spend the same amount of time gazing out of the window at their antics as most 'normal' people spend watching telly!
I have to admit I am a compost obsessive. I will upend the entire rubbish bin to salvage the piece of orange peel that slipped through the net and, sad but true, I have often been more excited about the possibility of composting packaging than the thought of what's inside a parcel.
I love the thought of turning our waste into something useful. I lift the lid of the compost with the same relish as some people gaze longingly through oven doors at cakes rising inside. Will it work? (It always does). How long will it take? (6-12 months). What little critters are hiding and doing the biz?
Here's our system: we have a little plastic caddy for the kitchen, which I line with something absorbant. Sometimes if I'm lucky I'll have an old paper bag, sometimes it's shredded paper, straw, dried grass... It still gets yicky inside, but it makes it easier to tip out. In the summer, this usually lives outside although sometimes I'll have a designated bag in the freezer instead, which stops any smells or fruit flies. The caddy is next to the regular bin and the recycling, the first one you come to, and raised to dropping-in height. I make it as easy as possible so it's done (there is a permaculture principle in action here, but I'll talk about that some other time).
We compost almost everything. All the veg scraps, brown and unprinted card and paper, cotton wool, the cellulose sponges I use to clean, the bamboo toothbrushes we now use and any food scraps (we don't waste much and it's all veggie, mainly vegan).
The caddy is tipped into one of six dalek bins outside - three in the front garden, three in the back (again to make it easy!) These are numbered 1-3 in each garden and they're filled in succession, ie. once no. 1 is full, we move onto no. 2 etc. Added to the kitchen waste is garden waste - grass clippings, hedge prunings, the leaves that collect on the drive - and sometimes, big bags of shredded paper I salvage from work! Composting people talk a lot about 'greens' and 'browns' and getting the right mix, but I literally throw it all in. If it's looking dry, I might add more kitchen scraps (which have a high moisture content); too wet and I seek out paper and card and twiggy material. It happens naturally, no need for too much science and I think this scares people off starting...
I've emptied one completed bin this week, and it's perfect. Brown, crumbly, no smell, and no evidence of what it was originally! There are few insects - they've long since finished their work. I've added a thin layer, maybe just a centimetre or two, to the top of my small veggie beds. No need to dig it in - the worms will set to work doing that so by April they'll be well nourished and good to plant into again.
If there's one thing I'd urge people to do to tackle waste (it really does change your perspective), to cut their carbon footprint, to improve their gardens, to fascinate and delight their children, then it's home composting. Give it a go!
I spend (some, not as much as I would like) Sundays gardening for people. Nothing fancy, just using the skills I have and a love of being outdoors to make people's spaces nicerer for them.
Yesterday's spell took nerves of steel. I started at 10 and the temperature had hit zero. Frozen ground, icy collections of water in the delves and a blanket of frost covering the leaves. I counted 6 layers of clothes on my top half, hat and scarf, and I was double gloved and double socked. But once you start moving, your muscles warm and if you can stay dry, it's rather nice to feel the proper chill of winter!
These are the tools of my trade. Beyond all things, it's the hori hori that I use the most (the thing that looks like a dagger!) And the secateurs at this time of year. They're cheap Lidl ones but they're great and I don't mind so much if I lose them.
The last job of the day was to prune an apple tree. It's been hacked at one point, by someone who's left a perfectly horizontal section of trunk that will leave the tree susceptible to disease as water collects in a vulnerable spot. It's caused shoots to grow vertically towards the sky, crossing in a mass in the middle and rubbing weak spots in the branches. It's a slow process of thinning the crown and cutting each just above an outward facing bud to give a 'goblet' shape to allow air to circulate and improve its appearance. Pruning is a creative process, taking time to stand back and consider each move, making something beautiful enough to stand proud in a garden. The fruit it offers is almost inconsequential!
And I get paid for this! The cold fresh air, the friendly natter, the creation of a piece of art, the birds, the peace... Kind and grateful people pass on their earnings in appreciation; I graft hard and they pay me for my time and my skill, and I sit down at the end of the day in front of the fire, with a tired body and dirty hands with the cash in my pocket that pays to feed my children. Noble work well rewarded. There's something very wonderful about it.
Treading Lightly is simple living, within your means and the means of the planet, and making a minimal impact on the Earth. Find out more here about Catherine, of Barefoot Solutions, does this from day to day.