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!
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!'
We are in the grips of a catastrophe! With snow persisting, I gather from several more enlightened sources (ie. those who've found the energy to leave the warmth of the house and venture out) that our beloved supermarkets are feeling the strain of supplying fresh food and there are... EMPTY SHELVES!
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.
This time of year I find incredibly frustrating. When you're a food grower, which innately we all are (somewhere underneath), it's right about now that there is almost nothing that can be planted. January and February are not only too cold but there's too little light and the ground is usually frozen like stone, certainly too hard to push in seeds. Even if you catch the window of opportunity, there are desperate teams of birds and mice who will swoop in and demolish them the moment your back's turned!.
There are aspects of what I do that really aren't pretty, certainly not for the faint hearted! And some that require steely determination and inordinate amounts of optimism. This is one of those projects that I feel in my bones will work. World meet Gresham, Gresham meet world...
Five and a half hours pruning today. It's been warm (maybe 10 degrees warmer than last weekend!) and dry, and the trees are still in their winter dormancy. Which would be about as perfect as it could be, if it weren't for the wind...
I absolutely love sharing skills and knowledge and I genuinely do think we don't do it enough. I'm not sure whether this is because a lot of people don't see what they know as valuable or special (it is), or whether it's because we don't want to appear big headed or superior. But here's the thing: if we really do want to build a society that uses its resources wisely, that is truly equal, that is self-reliant, then we have to share!
We had a run of snow recently - a stark reminder that we are very definitely in winter!
It's tricky to satisfy the urge to grow food when the temperatures drop, but it's still possible and certainly there are preparations for the coming season that can be made.
This bed required a little TLC. I've been pulling out tenacious nettle roots, docks and dandelions, which is all the more satisfying knowing that the cold will keep them at bay for a while yet! I don't dig if I can avoid it, partly because it wrecks the structure of the soil but also because it's too much like hard work! It's really not necessary and I like an easy life. But a hand fork to loosen the roots from the top few inches is fine.
The surface I covered with a thin layer of compost. It'll provide a feed for the soil and give next year's seeds a head start and increase the crop yields. The worms will do the hard work of incorporating it into the bed; no effort by me required!
And over all of this, there is a double layer of membrane. I don't like using plastic as much as I can avoid it, but I've not really found an alternative for this. The dark colour prevents weeds from growing back, locks in moisture and when the sun eventually comes back out to play, it'll absorb its heat and warm the soil quickly. Flattened, used compost bags will do the trick over small areas too. This membrane will be reused several seasons though.
And to plant in the bare spaces? Garlic! Three rows of shop-bought cloves, pushed around an inch under the soil, pointed tip up, and covered over. The cold of winter will cause the developing bulb to split and by late spring, they should be ready to harvest. These ones will head to a school kitchen, around 20m from plot to table. As local, as low carbon as can be!
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.