Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Living Simply

I've stopped thinking of myself as a virtuous person. I don't think I am. Every human being on this planet makes mistakes, becomes impatient, angry, emotional. I'm no saint - I'm a questioner.

I took my saint-less self along to the Quaker-led conference in Llandudno on the North Wales coast at the weekend with my family, (child and atheist other half). I'm going to write a few words about this, as I know that some Quakers are following this blog.

The weekend was called 'Living Simply'. It was a chance for people from Wirral, Chester and North Wales to explore what this might mean for them - in the context of peak oil/climate change and the rest of it. 'Living Simply' I felt, is just now, and has been for many years in fact, something that I do. For many years, a long time before I started talking directly to Quakers.

I discovered I don't want to imbue this thing (Living Simply) with all sorts of ideological meanings that I don't feel it should have. I feel it really puts people off. And I don't want to put people off, it's really important to save resources, cut your emissions and grow your own food.

I'm not vegetarian. We don't eat much meat. We don't have a car, we don't have a television (this astounds people - but please be assured - there is no shortage of information in our house!).

So, there were lots of joys at the weekend. Thank you everyone for organising it. I went to two work groups. One was called 'Combatting the Media'. The other I initiated - I called this 'Building Training for Organic Fruit and Vegetable Production'. The groups lasted 45 minutes each.

The 'Combatting the Media' group was particularly interesting for me. We talked about the 'red tops' - what sort of news hits the headlines and why. I tried to explain the sorts of challenges journalists are facing right now. Not a lot different I felt, from people in other industries hit by the recession with job cuts. Journos have a special place perhaps because (like teachers) people expect certain things of them. But like everyone else, they're fallible.

I talked a little bit, (in an individual capacity) about the NUJ campaign 'Journalism Matters'. That's a national campaign to protect quality journalism and it's vital role in our democracy. I painted a picture of what I thought would be a typical scenario:

Budget cuts in the newsroom - reporters wanting to cover particularly issues, but not getting the travel expenses or resources that they might need to do the best job they can. Not being able to travel to where the news is - to witness it yourself, but having to make do with telephone research. Needing to work faster and faster. Producing copy for print publications and with the Internet, producing web copy that's updated very fast, maybe more than once an hour. Having to multi-task. Not just writing, but photos too - using a video recorder...

I mentioned to the assembled company that the NUJ had an ethical code of conduct. Someone laughed. The expression on my face didn't change - I just took it as an indication of the ways in which quality journalism has been eroded. Maybe this started with Blair and his spin doctoring. Can we find our way back to something that consistently educates, informs and entertains without appealing to humanity's baser instincts? Our group scratched the surface of a discussion on the power of blogging, what blogs are, and what they can (and can't do).

Several insights came out of the organic food production group. We talked about Tim Lang, Garden Organic and the fact that only 5% of fruit is produced in the U.K. We collected and exchanged information about available training - in colleges of further education, at Garden Organic. There were some very experienced gardeners in the group and some newbies - so I hope during the course of the weekend that helped them get in touch with each other.

We talked raised beds and the pros and cons of them. Someone reminded me that railway sleepers are generally coated with preservative. One person did a presentation of the 'bag garden idea' which she said had come from South Africa, where land was in short supply. Put soil in a bag, (plastic or otherwise) and grow vegetables in it.

Allotments and the Allotment Act came up too. Shortages of them. We mentioned the allotments petition on the Wirral and someone said although the Allotment Act states that local authorities have to provide allotments if six people want them, there is no time scale attached to this, and so it is a blunt tool.

How to get round this, when people want land to grow vegetables on? If people have large gardens and they can't tend them, then you might be able to share with a neighbour. Check out the Landshare project.

As for the children - they got on with their bit. Building sandcastles on the beach.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Spring fruit, vegetable, plant and flower inventory

Victoria Rhubarb. Two crowns planted last year. Peeping through their mulch.

Asparagus bed. Twelve Crowns. Planted as mini-plants in spring 2007. Can't remember which variety I planted, so I'll have to look it up, but that's another useful post perhaps...I've used modular raised beds fitted together to make a large unit and various kinds of mulches. Cocoa shells. Rabbit manure last year. Seems to be doing well. It's always slow to show itself in spring. Some say the mulch means the soil is slower to warm. A small trench at one edge and reclaimed fabric I found when I renovated the plot keeps the couch grass from the old path at bay.

Our favourite Autumn Gold raspberries ready to do their stuff. I'm going to wait for a good spot of rain and then mulch them again to keep the moisture in the soil.
Our lovely peach tree (Avalon Pride) made it through the frosts with buds (so far) intact. Compost heaps for perennial weeds directly behind it and on our half plot behind that we have onions, garlic (planted in autumn last year). Shallots planted a few weeks ago. First early Lady Christl potatoes went in last week. One bed on the half plot and two on the main plot. I haven't bothered watering these yet, that's my low maintenance approach, so hoping for some rain soon. Some broad beans under a cloche. Two comfrey beds in all. One on the half plot and one by the shed.
The large square structures on the right don't belong to us. Once the cherry plum bushes which frame the half plot come into leaf, I'm hoping you won't see them so much. I'll have to prune these cherry plums during the summer (they say if you do them in the winter there's a risk of silverleaf which is a fungal disease). There's a wild heap of rough twigs at either end of the full plot, good for ladybirds to overwinter and the occasional fox. I'm not going to remove this pile now until next autumn as spring is a busy time on the plot.

The smallish bed in front of the posh wooden compost heap is destined for Globe Artichokes, which are growing nicely in our mini-greenhouses at home. Blackcurrant bushes on the left, (you can't really see them yet as they've not come into leaf.

So that leaves the black plastic beds in the foreground, six of them if I remember rightly. I've just planted out some Chanteney carrots in the bed in the foreground. The blue pellets are organic slug pellets which I occasionally use for special things. Hoping I won't need these though, once the frogs are up and running! I'm chancing it a bit planting these out now, but there's a bit of a traffic jam at home with all the plug plants I'm raising, and since we've got serious kitchen gardening ambitions this year, there's no room for slackers!
Four more compost heaps. That's six heaps in total plus two huge 'wild' ones. An indication of the huge amounts of green waste we've composted so far on our plot. In three years we haven't burnt anything. We're not allowed to as far as I know.

This is the view I have when I sit on my deck chair in front of my shed. The plants on the left are lavender, majoram and sage. Majoram for pizza toppings. Sage for that wonderful sage and onion stuffing. And lavender for the bees. I'm so looking forward to seeing them again...

Calm before the Storm

One of those lovely moments where I visited the plot and just stood and stared. Three years of hard work. Peace.

We're nearly ready for Spring, and everything is just about to burst forth. Time for a photo reality check (in the next posts). Need to make sure all is present and correct.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Building a Mini-Pond Part III

Pond plus frogspawn safely installed. Will post soon about ongoing fruit and vegetable activities!

Friday, 13 March 2009

Building a Mini-Pond Part II

First construction phase of mini-pond Mark 2. Two washing up bowls side by side. Some nettles (for the sake of wildlife) and a little chickweed visible.

The bowls contain a little washed gravel. We chose a light colour for the bowls so that we could see the frogspawn better.

Used some woodchip to surround the bowls, with some stones round. The two flat stones at the front form a small seat for my daughter to sit on whilst she watches the pond life.
There are flowers planted round the outside and on the outer edge of the wildlife corner the heap is framed by a some beautiful, fairly low informal copper beech bushes.

As you can see, there is no 'fence' at the front of this arrangement. I wonder if the Parks and Gardens department are going to insist that we have one. With two washing up bowl size mini-ponds? It would seem ridiculous to me. We're meeting them at 2.p.m. I'll keep you posted.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Video Guides to Composting

Stop press. Just had a message from Simon Levermore - webmaster at Garden Organic. He's just finished editing the new Garden Organic Video Guide to Composting.

You can see it on the Garden Organic You Tube channel http://www.youtube.com/GardenOrganic Enjoy.

How to make a Mini Pond (Part I)

I was thinking - there are probably lots of blog readers out there who would like a pond on their plot or in their garden.

Like me, you may have come across bureaucratic challenges on this one (see previous pond posts and comments). So what's a workable answer for busy people like us who need to press on with fruit and veg planting at this hectic time of year, but still want a home for their frog spawn?

Make a mini pond! Surely no-one can complain a very tiny pond is a health and safety risk, can they? I've found some step-by-step instructions on the BBC Wales 'Wild about Nature' website. You need an old sink, or a washing up bowl and some gravel to start with. I'm going to try this tomorrow. I've got two old ones I could re-use.

I've also found out that the Allotments Regeneration Initiative have a brilliant new site. For a small fee they'll send out fact sheets. They have one on 'Health and Safety on allotments: advice on activities requiring special management'. They say:

'Low fencing should not be necessary around a pond or water feature unless there is a drop from a well-used edge into deep water (more than 1.5m). Low fencing around a pond draws attention to the hazard but might not necessarily prevent access to the pond - it is only a partial solution and can lead to a false sense of security...'

(There's a mismatch of information going on here as it was the council who sent me the ARI leaflet and Parks and Gardens insisted that I would need a fence for the first pond design I suggested - and there's no way that was 1.5 m deep - more like four inches.)

No matter. ARI also specifically advocate the use of washing up bowls for small ponds. Hooray! We might get our pond after all! Although I don't know how I'm going to afford the architect's fees to draw up the plans which I still need to submit to our council.

For your further delight and entertainment I'm including here a few more links to lovely frog and pond websites: Turning Earth has great pictures of happy tadpoles and frogs in a mini pond in Yorkshire.

Froglife is great too. Includes answers to burning topical questions such as 'I feel I've got too much frog spawn, what can I do?'

Saturday, 7 March 2009

International Womens' Day - More pics

Here's a picture of the 'Make Gardens Not War' stall before the crowds started coming.

A selection of wild flower seeds displayed by another stall holder.

The Garden Organic Master Composters were in evidence too. There was a constant stream of people until three coming and viewing the Gaza film: 'Living without a bathroom' discussing the issues and taking leaflets. Lots of interest in Rod's blog, Joan's blog and the rest of the materials. The last picture is of a signing choir.

International Women's Day Part Two

The time is 12.a.m. and I'm blogging from International Women's Day, sitting on the 'Make Gardens Not War' stall.

I'm listening to Christine Russell, M.P. for Chester making the introductory speech. So far she has mentioned the following issues: childcare, equal pay, part-time workers rights, maternity pay, flexible working hours for carers. She's also referred to the Millenium Development Goals. The fact that many women die in childbirth every year worldwide.

She's now finished. She has made no mention of the impact of war on women's lives globally. No mention of peace, no mention of food and water issues.

There are lots of people coming up to he stall to talk about Gaza, the film from Gaza I'm showing on my lap top and peace issues. Will report as the day goes on.

International Women's Day - Make Gardens Not War

I'm making an appearance at International Women's Day today with a stall. I've called it:

'Make Gardens Not War'.

Half the stall is going to be advice on organic fruit and veg growing (with lots of brilliant info. from Garden Organic and my own experience.

The other half reflects the situations of people in war zones, who can't grow their own food - or can only do so with difficulty. Because their water supplies are contaminated, or because they live in a conflict zone and the supplies don't get through. We know that women tend and produce much of the food on this planet.

A young film maker from Gaza has contacted me and sent greetings on International Women's Day and a link to his film which I'm hoping to show today on my lap top - he makes the humanitarian case under siege with his documentary called simply: 'Living without a bathroom'

Ayman T. Quader says: 'This is a story I made about the impact of Israeli siege over Gazans. He describes his film like this:

Shaban El-Bobali is a 47-year- old man living in EL-Maghzi refugee camp in Gaza strip. Shaban represents one of many families that living in the same situation or even worst because of the drastic Israeli siege on Gaza Strip. Shaban and his family are living in a very miserable situation where they live in a 45-meter house without bathroom and without any resources.
"Death, Destruction, Casualties, Martyrs, and Siege also" Words chosen by Shaban's wife to describe the suffering they are living. Due to the imposed Israeli siege that has been continuing for almost 11 months, Shaban El-Bobali was left unemployed and unable to support his family as many Palestinians citizens'.

I'm going to have a section of the stall devoted to 'Bloggers for Peace' too. Rod Cox is from Chester and he is currently on his way to Gaza with aid supplies in the convoy. http://www.rodcoxandgaza.blogspot.com/

Last but not least, there is my friend and blogger Joan Meredith, she is currently on her way to Court to be tried for her protest at Aldermaston last year. She's a grandmother, 78 years old and has lost count of the number of times she has been arrested for her beliefs. We all know that the nuclear threat threatens us all, with or without a garden.

Follow her progress on http://www.joanmeredithsblog.blogspot.com/

The slogan 'Make Gardens Not War' has been used throughout the years by different organisations. I ordered t-shirts with the logo on from fellow blogger at apifera farm but they haven't arrived yet, that's a shame.

The proceedings on International Women's Day are usually opened by our M.P. Christine Russell. Hoole Community Centre in Chester from 11.a.m. I'm going to try and post again with reactions, photos and comments.

Information and leaflets kindly provided by Chester Stop the War Coalition, Trident Ploughshares and many others.

Friday, 6 March 2009

Sustainable Development Policy and Your Council?

When I had a call from Parks and Gardens today I was still holding out some hope that local government might be paying more than lip service to the UNCED agreements (United Nations Conference on Environment and Development including Local Agenda 21) the spirit of which at least should have filtered down to elected representatives and our civil servants. How wrong I was.

The issue at hand was the planned wildlife pond. We met in the car park on site to discuss it. As you'll remember, my plans for this were featured in blog posts recently, together with a photograph.

Since we were dealing with health and safety issues, as we were walking up to the plot I thought I would take the opportunity of explaining to Parks and Gardens how I had removed around three hundred bags of broken glass and rubble from my plot in the past three years. Single handedly. So I know something about health and safety. When I referred to the history of the plot Parks 'lady' said: 'Did you inspect the plot when you took it on?'. At first I wondered why she was asking this question - then I realised it seemed she was trying to spell it out to me that she felt the council had no liability (or indeed any interest) whatsoever in issues like this.

While this may be true legally (I don't know at this point) - it seems to bypass the issue that with peak oil and food shortages (and given the fact that as Tim Lang said in his video in a previous post - Britain is only growing 5 per cent of it's own fruit) local government should be doing all that it can to encourage people to grow their own. Offering plots which are derelict as mine was (unused for fifteen years at least) does not fit this particular bill.

On the way to my plot Parks 'lady' then proceeds to explain to me what Health and Safety issues are, and what my tenancy agreement means. I nod my head at first but then realise how incredibly patronising she is, and tell her so.

We're walking past a huge water butt which I had always been worried about when my daughter was smaller. It's quite clearly a death trap for small children. The last time I mentioned it to the council they came back with the unhelpful comment that parents were responsible for the safety of their children at all times. Gosh. As if we didn't know that, eh?

Parks lady was taking great pains to emphasise that she was only interested in 'my child's safety'. So I took the opportunity of asking her what she though of above mentioned water butt. I don't think she liked what I was saying so far and labelled me as 'aggressive'. Funny that. My friends call me 'feisty'. I'm assertive, I emphasised. (As soon as you disagree with them they label you as 'aggressive'. A good way of dismissing what you are saying? ASSERTIVE, I said again.

Then she said the death trap water butt was the 'City Council's responsibility'. My first thought at hearing this was 'I thought you WERE the City Council and even if you're not, you're still council...how about passing the message on...?) Then I realised of course they were passing the buck. In 25 days time round here there is a restructuring of the whole thing to create a new unitary authority so the City Council will no longer exist anyway.

So, we get to my plot-and-a-half, I take them round a bit, show them all the small trees, neat beds ready to go. On the way I point out an apparently derelict plot next to ours and the difficulties this will cause us this season as all the seeds on it are going to blow over. According to the council there are no derelict plots right now. What about this one, I say:

Rosebay Willow herb. The lot. More 'non-derelict and used plots in the background'. We have a huge waiting list and I've raised this issue too.

Then we come to my wildlife patch at the front. I explain how I plan to recycle an old paddling pool and edge it with available materials. As you can see from my previous posts it doesn't look amazing at the moment, but that's because it's a WILD LIFE corner. It isn't supposed to be TIDY.

So, it was Parks 'gentlemen' turn to speak. He was wearing a sweatshirt which said 'recycle' on the front and back. I had already explained how I had salvaged the wee paddling pool from a skip. He actually stood there and asked me accusingly (and I felt in a bullying and aggressive tone) 'Why didn't you use pond liner?'

Things went downhill from there, I feel. I proceeded to point out the the basic tenants of sound environmental policy i.e. 1. Reduce 2. Re-use and 3. Recycle. I don't think he liked my highlighting the logo on his sweatshirt either.

Then he challenged my use of 'available' materials (i.e. branches and twigs) - 'Why didn't I use willow? he said' there is plenty of willow growing over there (and pointed). I had to set him straight on allotment policy, I'm afraid and said I wouldn't dream of picking other people's crops without asking, and anyway, I didn't see what was wrong with using materials that had been generated on my plot.

Park gent's next objection was that 'it didn't look very nice'. (I had thought the visit was about health and safety issues and not aesthetics, but there you go). Park gent knew the person who had had the plot before...Yes, I said, so do I - obviously I said, there aren't many flowers to see at this point but explained anyway about the brightly coloured flowers that edged the pile, and the carefully selected copper beech bushes which framed it (bought those at BTCV).

Next, the said pair wanted a 'plan' of the proposed pond. (I've sent the council three emails about it this week - they already had a photograph and measurements - but they still want a 'plan'. Maybe I should think about an architect?

What more do you need? I said, whipping my tape measure out, and measuring up. Shall I draw you one? (searching for the back of an envelope in my bag). There's not much to add, I said. Did a quick drawing and put the measurements on it, in front of them.

We need a 'fence' they said so that your child can't fall in. (Remember what the council said on past occasions about parents taking responsibility for their children at all times and the death trap water butt?). Well I said pointing to the twigs and branches pile - I was planning to sink the small paddling pool into the ground and draw the branches around it as a barrier. Would that be alright? No, they said.

Well then, I said, if I can't do it like that, will you tell me how I CAN do it. Well, said Park lady, picking up a stout twig, if they were sort of bending OVER the pond like this...'Can I take a photograph, I said, so that I will know how to do this). 'No' she said. 'You will only use it against us'. ?

Right, I said, there are some adaptations to be made, and as I said already it is not finished. So I'll finish it, won't fill it with water yet and we'll meet again, shall we, so that you can tell me what you think? They okayed this suggestion reluctantly and are coming again next week. I'll keep readers posted.

The shame of all this is, I wanted to get the frog spawn and plants in soon, otherwise it's going to be another whole year.

As my daughter and I rushed away for an appointment - I was still fuming but felt slightly better after meeting a fellow allotmenteer who said he'd exactly the same experiences (with those two from the council).

The joke of it is, there are loads of people on the site who already have bucket sized ponds not much smaller than the one I have, and even some people's drainage ditches are more of a health and safety risk than our proposal.

When will they realise that they should be enabling and assisting people instead of creating barriers at every opportunity. At the end of the meeting my daughter said: 'I didn't like them very much, mummy'. No, I said. I didn't either.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Digging for Food Democracy

The word 'politics' has shuffled it's way into my blog title bar. This was never going to be just-another-how-to-gardening blog. I don't see how you can produce your own food and just ignore the wider issues of availability, food politics and price.

So here's a bit of analysis. Tim Lang - President of 'Garden Organic' and his speech about 'Digging for Food Democracy'. For the 'thinking' gardener. He's the only professor of Food Policy we have in the U.K.

Monday, 2 March 2009

Allotments and our cultural heritage

I found this old leather glove of mine on the allotment path on the way home.

Allotmenteers and gardeners make their mark on history, and on the land. It is unmistakably my glove. Even down to the way it has moulded itself to the lines of my hand. Three and a half years of work and weather in it.

This weekend it was a joy to see our site buzzing with people. Lots of newbies. I hope they stick at it. Some get disheartened because they haven't learned how. One reason I started this blog.

I've worked and planned pretty hard for the past few months - so there's no big rush and just last minute preparations to do for spring.

Prepared the potato beds. Planted out my first broad beans (with frost protection) and looked after the wild life contigent. In the true tradition of allotmenteers -I've used available materials to construct a simple wildlife pond.

The picture shows the front of my plot with a pile of twiggy material that doesn't compost down easily and an old paddling pool that I salvaged from the winter skip.

The whole lot is framed on the left and at the corner by an informal copper beech hedge which is mulched with wood chip to give it a better chance of growing.

The plan is to sink the paddling pool into the ground and frame it with the wood pile. We're allowed a small pond as long as it has a fence or hedge around it. (Which reminds me, I'm supposed to ask the council for permission, I think - must do that).

There's at least one toad in the pile already, and I'm going to see about getting some appropriate plants and even some frog spawn from someone who has a pond nearby. Hopefully they'll look after my slugs for me. We're in the organic contingent at this end of the site, so they won't have pesticides to worry about.

The rough lawn you can see has the odd bit of couch grass which needs taking out, but it's actually a rye grass and clover lawn which does the old apple trees a power of good as the clover fixes nitrogen from the air. It's also quite an exciting wildish spot for my daughter to play in.

Two years ago, the plots you can see in the distance (some of them very tidy - and different from our rustic plot - I don't really do straight lines...) did not exist and this part of the site was derelict. Like many allotment sites across the country, our survival has been subject to political whims.

Before I came three and half years ago the council tried to sell off this part of our site (including what is now my plot) to build a tennis court. It was a strange thing - we were one of the few cities in the country who didn't have a waiting list at that time - by accident or design - so many plots had been allowed to become derelict - it's an urban site and the land is very valuable...

Derelict plots were too difficult for some people to take on. I used to meet prospective allotmenteers - and watch their faces change to expressions of dismay at the sight of the plots that were being offered to them. My husband was the same.

Three and half years ago, just after my child was born, we went round the site with the pram. I had fallen in love with that derelict plot and the two old apple trees on it. It was a hot summer - I wanted to park baby in the shade. Nothing was going to stop me.

It was a sort of madness that made me do it. I suppose I was thinking - if I survived 49 hours in labour, then I could survive almost anything. And I did. It looks beautiful now.

Now we have a waiting list again. There are still derelict (or uncultivated) plots around though. If a plot is untouched for a long time (mine was left for about fifteen years at least) it is obviously so much more difficult to bring it back into circulation.

The council is busy with administrative changes. They should be making it easier for people to grow fruit and vegetables, especially with the recession when so many people need to boost their food budgets.

The water butt nearest to me is going to have to serve around fifty people this year. Our site has around two hundred plots. We don't have hand washing facilities, a toilet or a clubhouse - allotmenteers have even had to repair the pot holes in the road themselves.

We haven't survived this long (since the first World War at least) without putting in the graft . We're a hardy lot.