Embrace the chaos and grow some flowers

Watch a film about time travel and you will see the huge ramifications that even our tiniest decisions make. The world can feel like chaos, a vast impermeable machinery that we can’t hope to impact and we are at the mercy of. It can feel like we have less predictability and certainty than ever before, and because of this we are less in control than ever. We never had control. We are part of nature and subject to systems so wildly complex that we can’t always understand why something is happening, or predict when it will happen. Feeling out of control can lead to us thinking that our choices don’t make an impact, which isn’t true.

The wild uncertainty that whirls around us was always there, now is the time to embrace the chaos and grow some flowers. It is a tiny action, a small choice but you have no idea what the repercussions of it will be, what you do know is that they are likely to benefit you and the world around you, even if only in a small way

If it raises your mood for a minute, if a single bee rests there, if you pick it and give it to a friend and it makes their day it will all have been worth it. A lot of choices that I make I KNOW have a huge myriad of negative consequences that I’m not even aware of, but with growing I don’t have that feeling of guilt by ignorance. Even if I just grow the smallest thing, one seed, one flower, then I know I’ve put something back into my environment. When I grow more, it’s even better. 

If the world burns, I’ll be there planting. 

Imbolc 2021

Across cultures and continents humans have broken up our time around the sun into different holidays and feasts for millenia. Some of them have survived and evolved into huge global holidays celebrated in ways our ancestors couldn’t dream of, and some of them have only the barest thread extending into the 21st century, 

Imbolc is a Gaelic traditional festival that marks the beginning of spring, in Ireland it is also the feast day of St Brigid. Taking place between winter solstice and spring solstice, which would be between 31st January and 2nd February, the festival was a celebration of the quickening of springtime and the lengthening of days. Fire and candles were often an important part of the rituals associated with it because they represented the return of the sun. 

It is easy to see the importance that this festival would have had to agriculture based communities, but just because we are removed from those working realities ourselves doesn’t mean that we won’t benefit from pausing to acknowledge what the day represents. January can be a long hard month for people, especially during lockdown, with cold grey skies and bitter mornings. Imbolc is a day that invites us to look for the signs of new life pushing through the darkness and prepare our earth and our lives for the year ahead. One ritual that does this has persisted into the present day, we call it ‘spring cleaning’. 

There is so much we can learn from the cultures we have become disconnected from. Cultures connected to the land understood that human beings are part of nature, not separate from it, and as such our lives go through cycles of change that are impacted by the natural environment. I’m acknowledging this festival and time of the year in simple ways 

Looking for snowdrops

Changing my bedsheets

Lighting a candle

Burning some incense

Sowing sweet peas

Taking those simple things and doing them consciously, helping them to become ritual, has already mentally helped me to process that the bleakness of January is behind me. Instead of expecting my work to be at summer levels of abundance, I’m reminding myself that now is a time for planning and preparation. 

Light and life are coming.

Vote with your wallet

Real Seeds have been my preferred source for seeds since I started growing my own. I found them around 2012 and loved that they were encouraging people to save their own seed, which if everyone did perfectly would put them out of business. They introduced me to concepts like food sovereignty, seed saving and soil health. It was a completely new way of me viewing my food and understanding more of the complexities around how it is grown. 

They are an independent, family run business dedicated to sustainable living and their website contains detailed instructions on saving seeds, as well as guidance on setting up your own seed circles. They sell heritage varieties which are grown and tested in the UK and often come with a lovely bit of background. Many of these plants are no longer grown commercially and without the hard work of seed savers would have disappeared already. Those disappearing varieties are a part of our collective heritage, making the decision to grow them instead of an F1 hybrid is a way of keeping that part of our culture alive. 

We can’t control the decisions of companies that we buy from, but we can choose to buy from companies who make decisions in line with our own values. Voting with your wallet is a way of giving resources and energy to organisations that share the same dreams for the world as you do. Consciously choosing to support those businesses will impact what the world will become. 

As I write this they are receiving so many orders that their website keeps crashing and they only open their online shop once a week as they can’t keep up with demand. Although this meant that I had to wait a little bit longer for my Christmas seeds it fills me with hope. There are many others out there who want to either make ethical purchasing decisions, try growing their own vegetables or maybe learn more about heritage varieties. Across the country there will be a legion of organic, non GMO, sustainably raised seeds being nestled into the earth, ready to stretch out and greet the sky. 

Nigella Christmas

This year I’m focussing on sharing seeds and so for the first time I had a nigella Christmas. I saved nigella seeds from some flowers that my mum grew for me back in May, origami-ed some brown paper envelopes and sent them out to the women in my family. 

My family live across the UK in Manchester, Cornwall, London, Yorkshire and Isle of Wight so I find something lovely in the idea of us all growing flowers from the same plant. Some of the women that I’m related to (by blood and marriage) don’t know each other, and one of them I have a difficult relationship with, so me sending these seeds out into the world is a little bit of hope. I hope that they’ll plant them and grow them, and even better if they themselves saved the seed and shared it on, but if not then I’ve made my peace with the fact some of them will stay in a dark drawer somewhere. 

Nigella, or Love in a Mist is a self seeding flower that is related to the black cumin Nigella flower, but is poisonous. It’s very good at self seeding so you don’t normally need to save the seed for next year. In the language of flowers it means openness to love. you puzzle me and perplexity. This felt like a good place to begin actively sharing more seeds, and the flower is so easy to grow that I’m hoping even the people receiving them who aren’t normally green thumbed will have some success. 

This isn’t something I’ve done before, but little things fell in place that made me want to give this gift. I think about the fact that when my grandma was pregnant with my mum, the foetus that was her contained the ovary that became me. This plant my mum has given me, it’s seeds are being sent off across the country and maybe my cousin’s little girl (that I haven’t met yet because of Covid) will touch the blue flowers of the sister plant that my daughter will point at. My grandparents that I can’t see because they are vulnerable people, will be able to look at the flowers and know that we have some, exactly the same, growing in our garden. 

Hopefully we can grow them and be reminded of our connection to each other.

Samhain Resolutions

Since I was a child I’ve been drawn to Pagan traditions and ways of viewing the world. The Wheel of the Year introduces ideas of cyclic change, with space for new life, growth, harvest and death. Samhain on the 1st November is considered by a lot of Pagans to be the start of a new year.

New Years for me is a time for reflection and goal setting for a new start. As I’ve said before, one of the brilliant things about gardening is having time and space to reflect and learn from the previous years’ growing.

November feels like a perfect time for this.

This November I began a new year for my garden. I cleared out all of the plants that weren’t producing, tidied up the beds and have started creating a blank canvas for myself. Drawing a line under and moving on feels freeing. 

I love New Year’s resolutions, I know they’re not everyone’s cup of tea but they really appeal to me. My Samhain gardening resolutions are:

Seed sharing

Gifting plants

Grow in new spaces

These three goals are going to guide my gardening efforts.

Sometimes I find it hard to engage with the garden in winter, even when I still have lots of vegetables growing. The ground is messy and sludgy from leaves and I just don’t feel as motivated to be in there. Having a long period of resting and planning means that I feel a lot less pressure with the space which has weirdly meant I’m in there more.

Before light there is darkness, I’m making the most of this embryonic state to reflect on what I learnt last year and to plan

Seasons

What I learn from my garden is that you can always begin again, and when you do you’ll have learnt from the last time. As summer has turned into autumn there is a natural break and space to rest. There is relief in the inevitability of winter.

One of my best germs of advice is to never be afraid of the end of the party. I work in events, so this gets dished out a lot. I’m realising now that this applies to many situations. We’re often frightened of endings. As a species we use stories to make sense of the world, we build narratives and have developed archetypes. For us the end of a story is a drop into the unknown. The anticipation of the end of a relationship, a job or a living situation can cause huge amount of anxieties in a person. Often the anticipation is far worse than the experience itself. Maybe this is a deep feeling stretching back from our fear of our own ending, the biggest unknown.

The weather has turned here in Manchester, there is a bite in the air. Outside the sunlight lights up my bricks brightly, but I know that I will need my coat. The leaves that rise behind my brick wall, from a tree in the park across the road, are a pale golden colour, mixed with weak olive and a smattering of very light brown. In the sunlight they look like they are meant to be that way, just as healthy as when they were a deep rich green. Their time is coming to an end and soon they will fall across the road and be swept along the park. Sinking into the ground below and becoming part of the earth there.

My garden has grown and become something outside of what I had planned. I didn’t care for it as much as I should and now the cold air stinging my face and my breath rising as I talk is gently letting me know that it is time to wind it down for this year. This season is over but that’s okay. I’m going to harvest the last of my fruits and then gently plan next year. Consolidate what I have learnt and maybe even start thinking about some sowings I can get in before Christmas.

Endings allow us to begin again.

When things are a bit harder than usual

It has been a bad week. Normally I love sharing pictures of my garden but I’ve been struggling with other areas of my life and I didn’t feel like I had the time to go outside and look after my plants. When I did go outside, I found that a lot of the containers I had used for potting had flooded and the plants inside were struggling. The pots came with the house and I had been in such a rush to get stuff in that I hadn’t taken the time to make sure they had good drainage. Gardening is an aid for my mental health, but this week it felt like another pressure on it.

My tomatoes which had been doing so well now looked awful and so instead of being somewhere that rejuvenated me and made me feel better, my garden now was another area of life that was struggling. I didn’t want to be outside and I didn’t feel like I had the energy to sort it out.

Sometimes you put something out there and it doesn’t work out. Sometimes through your own carelessness, something you hadn’t even been aware of circles round and sets you back. Or you weren’t as good as you thought you were and you have to deal with the realities of your own incompetence. It can’t be summer all of the time. Life is always teaching you, and if you don’t pick the lessons up fast enough there can be consequences. Some people are shielded from these more than others, I personally have a lot of privillege compared to most people in the world and I’m trying to remember that right now while I’m finding things a bit harder to deal with than usual.

I’ve been working on a community gardening project with some neighbours that formed out of a neighbourhood whatsapp group. We’ve been putting raised beds into a church. The person who has been leading on this asked yesterday if any of us could come with him to meet the group that tends the church grounds. I knew this would be a bit tense because we had accidentally used their compost that they had been working on for years, so I decided to go with him so he wouldn’t have to bear the brunt of this by himself. It was the best thing I could have done. We spoke with the group who come in once a month to tend the grounds, and one of them was very angry at us, but we managed to resolve a lot of the tension. I met a lady called Yvonne who is a member of the church and also has her own allotment nearby. She was lovely and really into what we had done so far. She showed us pictures of her allotment and all of the things she liked to grow. In particular sprawling pumpkins and pots of bamboo, because they reminded her of Jamaica. I left the church feeling more fortified, even though we were laid into a bit, and much more able to get back on with my own garden. I am always learning from my garden and the people that this interest connects me to. People from all over the world, a lot of them with a much deeper understanding than myself of the land and of how things work. There are so many patterns you see played out in a garden setting that play out in a larger form on life.

Guess I need to get off my laptop, give myself a nudge and get my hands back in the ground again.

Elderflower Champagne and the meaning in making

Elderflower champagne tastes of British summer. Unusually this is something you will struggle to buy, you have to instead engage in the quest for the flower. You start by seeking them out, keeping an eye as you walk along the routes through your parks and neighbourhoods. Once you find a tree with those beautiful blossoms, pick them and thank the tree. Back at home, you can view your treasure more closely, shake any bugs off them and then put them with the rest of your ingredients in a large pan to start brewing.

I remember the smell of elderflowers from when I was a kid, although I didn’t know their name.  All of the different flowers from the bushes and trees around our area were inspected and sniffed. In the spring and early summer we would use these flowers for decorating various dens that we made, or put them in bouquets as gifts for our toys, or offerings for faeries. In the autumn different berries and leaves would be mixed into potions that smelt so pungent we implicitly knew they shouldn’t be eaten. 

As an adult, I don’t spend as much time making potions and floral offerings, which is part of the reason that making elderflower champagne (or fizz, we’re not supposed to call it champagne) appeals so much to me. I use this recipe from Spruce Eats. Unlike a lot of foraged alcoholic concoctions this one really does turn water into wine, rather than you just adding a flavouring to a drink you already have. There is something magical about the brewing process, and the fact that we can do it ourselves in our kitchens without expensive fancy equipment is brilliant. It’s also incredibly cheap to make. I never buy bottles to put it in, just save ones that were headed to the recycling bin and reuse them.

Human minds respond well to stories, to beginnings, struggles and resolutions. They help give us meaning and context for our lives. Today we have so much convenience that a lot of what we do is without thought and devoid of meaning. Often with food and alcohol there is no understanding of what sort of journey it has been on before it has got to us, and the closer we are to the end consumption the further we are from giving it value. The difference between eating a microwave meal you mindlessly swallow while watching telly and eating a meal you cook from scratch with ingredients from your garden. This isn’t to say that convenience is bad, and everyone should be making their own clothes from grass, there is a time and a place for fast food. When your meal has a story that you’re part of, when you involve yourself in the process of it getting onto your fork – because you picked the tomatoes out yourself, or grew the herbs, or you cooked it – it becomes more meaningful. 

Any glass you have of your own elderflower champagne is special. The flowers only bloom for a few weeks at the end of May until mid June and you can’t really buy it in the shops. When you share it with your friends, you will tell them about how you made it and remember the weather as you picked the flowers from the tree. When a bottle of it explodes on your shelf and soaks everything underneath it, you’ll remember the sound of it going off and tell yourself to make sure you burp the rest of the bottles more regularly. When you have a glass, because of the journey around it, it becomes a meaningful part of your day and you savour every sip. 

Summer becomes ours to bottle with just a bit of effort. 

Learning from Black Lives Matter

In recent weeks there has been a big push to make the Black Lives Matter movement even more visible. Although I spoke about this a lot on my personal social media, I didn’t do anything to raise any sort of awareness through this platform. This was wrong of me. Typical behaviour of a person who doesn’t have to confront these issues day to day, and I am sorry. 

If you do not know what Black Lives Matter is, please refer to their website and do some reading. 

What does Black Lives Matter have to do with peas? Why am I writing on a gardening blog about this?

I think that the media around gardening and growing is not welcoming to Black people, and that the institutes that shape our thought around gardening and growing are built on racial inequality. The pinnacle of British gardening, the Royal Horticulturist Society, has at its roots an entanglement with eugenics and much of white gardening is an expression of colonialism (I will write more on this later). These elements have built an environment that is homogeneous and exclusionary. 

To throw this back into gardening terms. Monocultures are good for industrial growers, but not for bees or the environment. They don’t really exist in nature and so need to be reinforced by chemical agents. We have a monoculture in British gardening and because we are in the middle of it we struggle to see the damage it causes. 

Gardeners are always learning about the invisible connections between different systems and how they affect each other, we need to realise that we too are living things who are just as connected to wider systems as our tomato plants are to the bees. We are not separate from nature, and just as we try to shape and control the forces around our plants we too are shaped and controlled by forces larger than ourselves.

Black Lives Matter has caused people to rush out and buy books to educate themselves about how systemic racial oppression exists in everyday life, and to try to understand what they can do about it. We are becoming more aware of what our lives of convenience are built on, and the terrible cost of the advantages that we take for granted. I only inhabit a small space online, with the tiniest contribution to social media – but I want to use it to say that I can see that things need to change here. I don’t fully understand how to make that happen, but I’m learning. 

Gardening for me is spiritually and mentally soothing, and brings me a calmness I don’t get from anything else. Having that connection to the land brings me joy. Not everyone is going to feel the same way about it as me, but everyone should have the chance to. Growing your own food and making your land welcoming for wildlife can be a radical political act which links into building communities, environmental action and food justice. If something is radical it has to be accessible to everyone, and right now it isn’t. By learning from Black Lives Matter I hope we can start to see the systems that exist that result in inequalities and exclusion in a whole variety of areas and learn how we can proactively dismantle them. 

4 ways I manage my eco anxiety

The world is a huge place with complex problems we often feel powerless to solve. Sometimes it feels like the planet is being asset stripped by maniacs with no long term thinking about the harm this will cause to all life. I don’t need to list the reasons why it is easy to have eco anxiety, because if you care about the environment they are obvious. Anxiety around any issue can have a massive impact on people’s lives and with scientists and the media reporting on climate catastrophe it is very easy to understand why eco anxiety is becoming more common.

When mine flares up I do the following things:

  1. Go for a walk

Do it, as soon as you can. Ideally try and get in near some trees. Changing your environment and moving your body is good for any type of anxiety. We are not all blessed to live among rolling fields and idyllic scenes, but even as someone who lives in Manchester city centre there are always things of beauty to find. Living in Ancoats I walk along the canal. Just making the effort to find a bit of nature is really rewarding, at the moment there are little goslings in the canal and I love spotting them while I’m out. 

  1. Start small

Part of the reason I personally find the environmental crisis so anxiety-inducing is the sheer size and scale of the problem, and the feelings of helplessness this brings up in me. It feels like there is nothing I can do to help. The thing is, that isn’t true. When I start to feel this way I try and go back to basics and do small manageable tasks that are quick to complete that I know have a good effect on the environment. Whether this is sowing seeds to grow my own vegetables, swapping plants with neighbours or helping out in a community garden. If you can’t get outside or have mobility issues you can help by finding local community gardening groups and supporting them on social media with likes and shares. If you don’t have a garden you can try some guerilla gardening, you can start as small as scattering wildflower seeds in unused areas. 

  1. Reach out

There are a lot of people who feel this way, and by reaching out and being open about your uncomfortable feelings you can find support. A lot of the time with anxieties it comes in waves. I have days where I feel incredibly positive and strong, and at those points I can be there for people who aren’t doing as well. I also have days where I feel like the planet is doomed and I worry about my baby but on those days I try to speak to others. Often just the act of framing language around my anxiety makes it go away and if that doesn’t work just knowing I am surrounded by like minded people really helps.  

  1. Read

If your head is proving a dangerous place to be, try and get out of it! There are books around climate change that are hopeful, I enjoyed Scatter, Adapt and Remember by Annalee Newitz. One of the big issues with climate change is that it is an existential threat on a gigantic scale, the likes the world has never seen. Although we don’t have a solution to this level of threat, we do have a tonic to existentialism which is absurdism. I find reading The Stranger by Camus to realign me. In general just getting away from a screen and from social media, and giving your brain something else to focus on and engage with is very calming. 

These are things that help my mental health around eco anxiety. Gardening has always been a massive boost to my overall mental health, so it is particularly good for this problem. People are innovative and feel a deep connection to the earth, with enough of us on the same page there is a lot we can do to help nature.