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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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
I’m doing my blog post a day early this week because today is endangered species day. Now we all know you’ve got the ‘sexy’ endangered species, your tigers and pandas (disclaimer, I am not attracted to pandas) but I think it’s important to remember the endangered species who are a little bit closer to home.
We had bees on our land in Cornwall, this is me with them! It was an amazing feeling being able to handle them. Your body has a reaction to the buzzing, like a primal electricity going over you.
The symbol of Manchester is the bee and in the wake of the arena bombings a lot of people in Manchester got the bee as a tattoo. As I’m sure we all know, bees and other pollinators have had a pretty raw deal recently. Meadowlands are in sharp decline, monocultures dominate the countryside and we use poison to grow our food. There are a huge amount of challenges facing them, and we depend upon them for our own survival. They are rapidly becoming the most important endangered species of all.
Not only are they struggling because of large agricultural practices and destroyed environments, but even individual gardeners are creating a hostile terrain. Immaculately mowed lawns with no flowers and round up on the dandelions are all doing their part to hurt out bee friends. Often we feel like there is nothing we can do to help with large scale problems like this, but to put it into perspective the land taken up by gardens in the UK is bigger than all of our nature reserves. We have the opportunity as gardeners to make life easier for these guys as they are facing huge threats.
It doesn’t take a lot to make somewhere useful for pollinators and I think as a city Manchester should focus on getting bee friendly. This is something I’m going to focus on for this year, and hopefully by next endangered species day I’ll have helped make some spaces in this city better for bees.
As I look across the sprawling sea of skyscrapers that is becoming Manchester’s skyline it is comforting to know that even now under lockdown different groups across the city are still actively working on making the place greener. As one of (if not the first) industrialised cities Manchester is not somewhere that you would normally associate with local produce and allotments. Sow the City are working to change that by working with local people to encourage growing vegetables and urban gardening. To grow your own in Manchester, with our limited space and lack of gardening heritage takes resourcefulness and tenacity – something we have in spades.
Mo and Juliet from Let’s Keep Growing gave us a clear, comprehensive and accessible presentation of how they made their idea a reality. Mo has lived in Longsight for 40 years and met Juliet through a housing co-op. After enrolling in the ‘Making a Difference’ programme through Amity CIC they started working on their plan to turn the alleyways between Slade Lane, Hamilton Road, Hector Road and Palm Street into a community garden. Let’s Keep Growing was born.
Manchester has many alleyways and reclaiming them as a shared community space that incorporates food production, homes for wildlife and socialising is brilliant. There is so much underused space in cities that could be used to grow vegetables and help increase city food security. They were keen to emphasise how much research and hard work is involved in getting this project off the ground.
Mo and Juliet found during their research that there were a lot of gardeners and a lack of green spaces, so the idea to bring people’s backyards out into the alleyways fit with resident’s needs. One of the things I really liked about their presentation was how they kept coming back to speaking to the people in the community, whether it is through knocking on doors or handing out questionnaires. They asked a lot of questions of people who were already there to ensure they were creating something the whole community could feel part of.
Longsight is a diverse area and part of the goal of this project is to promote social cohesion. One piece of advice they gave that really stuck with me was to create as many different ways for people to get involved as possible. Residents came out and shared food with volunteers on the project, shared seeds and plants from their back gardens and helped to spread the word. A lot of the time people want to be more engaged with their communities but they don’t have a channel for it, a reason to communicate it. Let’s Keep Growing helped give participants a shared goal with their neighbours, something to work together on and bond over. To encourage as many local people as they can there is an active effort to make the project as visible and accessible as possible.
Give the webinar a listen if you are interested in setting up your own community gardening project, especially if you are in Manchester because they deliver a really comprehensive plan to help other budding community groups. The webinars are every Friday so do get involved.
Reading the comments in the chat box it looked as if Mo and Juliet had sown the seed for quite a few listeners and I hope we’ll see a flurry of urban gardening projects happening in Manchester soon.
Those of us who are regular gardeners were in for a bit of a surprise a couple of months back.
Seed companies throughout the UK reported they were having such a high amount of orders they couldn’t cope with them. Either the company was so large that they struggled getting stock out because of social distancing, or they had such a mass of orders that they couldn’t meet demand. It seems Covid19 can leave no area of regular life untouched, growing tomatoes has never been so fraught! I saw a bit of backlash online against fairweather growers but I think it is more important than ever before that we release some of the pressure on our food supply chains. The more people gardening the better no matter what the initial cause. Hopefully it will lead to people being more environmentally conscious as well as getting more flowers out there for our struggling pollinators. Once you start to grow your own vegetables you realise how worthwhile it is.
One of the things the great seed grab of 2020 highlights to me is the importance of saving seeds and growing varieties of plants that enable us to do this. Should we only be relying on companies to provide our seeds for us when we have now seen first hand how fragile the supply chain is?
A lot of people grow food to become self sufficient but don’t realise that by relying upon businesses for their seeds, their self sufficiency is at the mercy of market forces. You can gain some security from this by doing the following:
Research what varieties of plants you can grow again
At some point I will write about the fascinating world of seed law and biology (no sarcasm) but this isn’t the space. It’s enough to say that for many common varieties of vegetables and fruits you will struggle to produce healthy plants from the saved seed. If this is news to you, I recommend looking at this. When you’re planning your garden try to think long term and get varieties that will create strong offspring.
Save your seeds
This is definitely easier for some plants than others! But like with anything you can start small, you don’t need to go from gardening noob to carrot essence siphoning magician overnight. The journey between those two points is going to be full of trial and error. Start with the easier plants, like peas, beans and peppers. Seed saving is one of those things you can start doing immediately and you can always do better. Have a look here for a little guide. Once you have your seed, make sure store them safely so your hard work doesn’t go to waste!
Set up community seed swaps
Have a look around and see what seed swaps are happening locally to you, if there aren’t any – start one. Swapping seeds with local growers is a great way of meeting people with similar interests and a free way of diversifying your own seed supply. It also means that the seeds that you will be acquiring have had a trial run in similar conditions to the ones you’ll be growing in. Community gardening is a wicked concept and can grow from such meetings. If you want to start a seed swap but don’t know how to start going about it feel free to get in touch, my day job is events and I’d be really happy to give any advice.
Buy from independent companies
Smaller companies have less staff and a less lengthy supply chain so are able to react quickly to changing environments. Vitalseeds had a system during the mad seed rush where they would accept orders until a certain time and then stop accepting them once they got to a certain limit. Supporting these companies is important for the landscape of our seed sources, many of them with higher ethical standards than larger companies, but also they have the added benefit of being able to react quickly to rapidly changing situations.
Social media is a tool, a lot of the time wielded by powerful people with different interests to myself, that most of us have access to. In that medium we don’t just consume media, we also create it. Which gives us a good opportunity not only to put out onto the platform more of what we see in the world, but also use it to serve our interests. Follow other gardeners. You will get a lot of advice and support as well as the opportunity for online seed swaps. You might find other people in your area and be able to trade vegetables when you have a glut. It will help you build an online community of other growers as well as helping you connect to growers local to you that you otherwise wouldn’t have discovered. Then if something like this happens again you can put a shout out for excess seeds, or cuttings and maybe find yourself in the position where you can support someone else.
In the wake of coronavirus there has been a large increase in mutual aid groups and communities reaching out to each other. This is brilliant, and hopefully some of this increased community connection and gardening interest will result in more planned community growing.
I’m not saying stop buying from companies altogether, but we can use this as an opportunity to spread awareness about the merits of seed saving and swapping. Not just for the benefit of our individual gardens, but also those of our local and online communities. By diversifying our seed sources we will strengthen food security with the added bonus of saving ourselves some money.