gardening

The important lessons that gardening has taught me about getting through life

Sometimes, life is just shit. There is no other way to say it. It’s just shit. And let’s face it, a lot of the time, life is shit because people are shit. We are. We are all at times, just shit. Shit to ourselves, shit to others, shit to the world around us. Shit.

*Warning,  in case you haven’t noticed already, this post contains swearing, vague philosophical ramblings, some pessimism and some questionable theories on the nature of humanity. Don’t worry though, I never do these things without good reason. Read on*

Something incredible happened to me today. Something that taught me about the nature of the world around me, the nature of plants and wildlife and the environment I live in. Something small, something huge, something that shifted my whole perspective on a difficult situation. A lesson in getting through the tough times.

Let me set the scene. Many of you know I had a bad year last year in many ways. Well, I say bad, it was in fact, a year littered with the most wonderful things that have ever happened to me. But in terms of my health, my garden and my heart for the garden, I had a very tough year. My plot bore the brunt of everything that happened in the rest of my life. I didn’t really bother much with it, not as much as I should have. I let it go to ruin.

gardening

It’s in an absolute heap

I made bad choices. I invested my energy in to the wrong things when I should have reserved it for my garden. It only served to hurt my garden and myself in the long run.

I’ve written at length about not knowing how to begin again. How to start over and why the hell I should bother. I’ve been looking around my plot with despair, and sadness and with a sort of veiled apathy. Why the fuck should I care about it anymore? Why don’t I just forget about it and move on?

But of course, because it is the blood in my veins, the air in my lungs and an intrinsic part of the very nature of who I am; I can not just give this up. It is part of my identity. It is the love of my life.

So, today I decided to give it another shot. To maybe just try one more time to get it back to its former glory. Or better still, to take all the lessons it had taught me, and use them to tear it all the fuck down and begin all over again.

So, I have begun again. I spent two hours just beginning to pick up the pieces. I’ve begun to throw away the dead plants, the old plants, the old bits of wood, the twigs, the crap. I’ve begun to clean up my act.

gardening

You’ve got to be willing to get seriously dirty if you want to clean up your act though

And when I stood in my garden today and looked around, among all the litter and chaos and destruction, I found something that made my heart skip a beat. I found a patch of crocuses that I planted three years ago that never grew before, and they were in full, glorious, delicate bloom.

Despite the snow storm, despite the neglect, despite the fact that I had never tended to them. Despite everything and against all the odds, there they were.  And I nearly fucking wept. Not just because I’m a sap with too many feelings, but because I realised once again, that the greatest lessons we can learn about ourselves, we learn from nature. That we too can weather the storms. Plants and wildlife and the natural world has more to teach us about ourselves than we will ever know.gardening

So, in an effort to quantify this somehow in a blog post –  I’m attempting to marry the huge wonders of nature with some small words on a screen – I’m going to try to explain a few life lessons that my garden has taught me. Maybe it will help you if you are, like me, going through a rough patch. I’ve been thinking about all the amazing things that plants can teach us about ourselves and how to take those lessons and turn them to gold. How to fucking bloom.

Nature simply doesn’t give a shit about you

Sounds pessimistic right? It’s not. This is one I’ve written about before and it never fails to cheer me up. Seriously, just think about it. Plants and wildlife are incredibly apathetic to anything else around them except their own survival. They don’t care about you, they don’t care if you’re fat, thin, an asshole, a saint, gorgeous, ugly, a fuck up, a success, they don’t care if you’re a shit person or a good one.

And this realisation can turn your understanding of yourself and your place in the world on its head entirely.

Think about it this way, you can literally be anything, or anybody or act any way, and you will still exist. When you are a gardener, or simply out there in nature, your personality, your mistakes, the things that you don’t like about yourself, the things you love about yourself, there is no place for them. None. You are simply part of something bigger than yourself. You can just be an organism, of little or no consequence. In a garden you are absolved of all your shit and (perhaps even better) everyone else’s too.

Enjoy!

You have a responsibility to the world around you and the world you build

All that being said, every thing you do impacts the world around you. Everything.

If you don’t look after your garden, it will not thrive. You can’t expect to put nothing in to something and then expect to get anything worthwhile out of it. Plants and nature will always be there, but if you are the one who planted the seed, you are the one who should tend to its needs.gardening

I’m sure you’ve planted something before and kind of forgotten to take care of it properly. You thought to yourself “ah sure look, it’ll be fine, it won’t be the end of the world if it dies”.

No, it won’t, but you kind of made its existence pointless now didn’t you?

Gardens are amazing spaces and we are their curators. We have a responsibility to the plants and the wildlife in them. We have a responsibility to how we treat everything and everyone in our lives too.

In essence,  don’t be a dick.

Only plant what you want to grow

Right, this is a pretty basic one. But, why bother planting peas if you don’t want peas? Why the hell would you put all that time and effort and love into something you have zero intention to actually use?

Think about that. Same goes for jobs, friendships, relationships, hobbies, your fucking dinner, the clothes you buy. Stop chasing things you don’t actually want.

Mistakes are just mistakes

How many times have I written that I do not believe that there are mistakes in a garden? Well, I lied. Of course there are. You will spend your life in a garden making mistakes. But here is the difference between how you may feel about those mistakes and how those mistakes actually impact or hurt your garden.

Much like in the rest of your life, you will beat yourself up for your mistakes in your garden, you will. You will beat yourself up for your mistakes in life. You’ll ruminate on them, be sad about them, blame yourself. But here is the wonderful thing gardens teach us about mistakes: they can’t be undone so make your peace with them and move the fuck on.  Self blame in a garden is pointless. You know why? Because it doesn’t change or fix anything. Accidentally kill a plant by not watering it? Well just learn from it and water the next one. Did your tomatoes die because you had them in the wrong environment? Well, they’re dead. End of. You won’t bring them back to life.

Yes, you fucked up. Yes, it sucked. But yes, you have a chance to make it better.

Don’t equate mistakes to failure. If you do that, you will lose hope and simply stop trying. In a garden and in life.

Plants don’t waste their time on shit that doesn’t make them better

Plants and wildlife spend their lifetimes searching for things that make them a success. Things that make them thrive. Plants don’t waste time on things that they don’t need. Plants only have use for things that sustain them. Water, and nutrients and light and pollinators. Things that make them live and grow.

gardening

You don’t see these guys sitting around feeling sorry for themselves

People tend to do the opposite. We stew in guilt and resentment and sorrow. We let shame and regret eat us alive. We waste our time on things that don’t sustain us. We hurt ourselves in the long run. If you spend your life on things that do not sustain you, you will literally die.

Bleak? Nope, that right there is the opposite of bleak folks that right there opens up space for hope.

Which brings me nicely to..

Gardening teaches you to hope

Have you ever sown a seed and not wanted it to grow?

Enough said.

Gardening teaches you to be patient

Gardening teaches you to breathe. To take a step back. Because no matter how much work you do, everything takes time to come to fruition. You’re not just going to plant a seed and poof, two seconds later have an apple.

Sometimes, you just have to wait and trust that the world has you right where you need to be.

Being buried doesn’t mean you’re dead

And maybe the most important lesson of all, gardening has taught me that you can quite literally be up to your neck in dirt and turn it all around. You can be so deep under all the crap and mud that life slings at you that it seems like there’s no fucking way out.

But what happens when you let in the things that will help you grow out of it? What happens when you just let in water? Or warmth? Or hope, or love, or forgiveness or trust or patience or self belief?

Your life can be a grave or a garden.

It can bury you. Or it can plant you.

It’s up to you to decide.

I dig therefore I am

There’s a fresher air in Dublin this week as late summer breezes by and autumn blows in. My summer of discontent has been and gone and much like the changing of the seasons, my life has shifted in to a brand new phase.

It’s been an arduous summer here at Fiona Grows Food, plagued with health issues and some upheavals in my personal life, my garden has taken a back seat to the pursuit of health and happiness.

At times, the garden hasn’t been quite as productive as I’d have liked and I’ve spent a significant amount of time lately attempting to juggle the real world with my dream world. The dream world in this case being the ability to garden and write for a living.

Dream office alert!

Now that autumn is upon us, I am in the heart of harvest season and I’m left to take stock of the summer that has passed and think about what has and hasn’t worked for me in the garden.

The past few days I’ve been thinking about the nature of the changing seasons and the cycles of our lives. Thinking of how our gardens can reflect everything else in our world and how that reflection can guide us to where we are meant to be.

Now, before you wonder what the hell has happened to mad, hilarious Fiona and begin to panic at the thought that I might have become a bit of a poetic, philosophical bore, bare with me. This is an absolute cracker of a realisation I have to share with you! Then I promise I’ll get back to my usual slapstick gardening humour.

I do still have my funny moments to be fair…caught someone in a quite compromising parsnip position the other day…

Over the past few years, I’ve been juggling some hefty commitments, including a 50 hour a week thankless job, a blog, freelance writing commitments, food growing workshops and of course, a pretty large veggie garden.

Of all these things, the one that has taken up the majority of my time has been my job. Not that I’m looking a gift horse in the mouth, I have enjoyed my work the past few years and am grateful for the amazing opportunities that it has afforded me. However, it just wasn’t right for me anymore.

I no longer had time to write or to dig, I had no space to blossom.

Plants and people are not so different really and this is the overarching point of my preposterous poetic preamble; if we treat ourselves and our lives the way we treat our plants, we’ll be all the better for it.

Think about it.

If you are a gardener yourself, you’ll know that when a plant is wilting, diseased or dying, it’s not the plant that is at fault, the problem is the environment.

This is why we grow some plants in polytunnels instead of outside

If a plant is parched, we water it, if it’s starved, we give it light, if it’s struggling we support it.

Put simply: if your plants are not thriving, you change their environment.

When a plant doesn’t perform well, we don’t scream at it, admonish it or bully it into submission (except for weeds, I’ve been know to scream at weeds on occasion). We take note of what has caused the problem and take steps to avoid the issue in future.

We repot it. Change the way we water it. Bring it in indoors. Give it less sun or more. We plant it in a different environment, we adjust our care in line with its needs, we try something new in the (sometimes vain) hope that next time, the plant will thrive.

If all that fails, we simply try again.

As gardeners, we are care givers, we are bound to the many lives we have become responsible for. We are held to account by our plants, and rewarded by our dedication and diligence.

We measure our successes in harvests and seeds, the more we put in, the more we are rewarded and we are guided by a tangible desire to do what is best, not only for our plants but for ourselves too.

In fact, based on these findings, I think it’s time for another one of my Fiona Grows Food Mathematical Discoveries of the Century.

Where:

A=hard work

B=desire for success

C=time spent in the garden

D=plant knowledge

Y=Tomatoes

Then:

I haven’t used any square roots here as the roots I work with are far too organic in structure for me to quantify in a single equation.

Mind Blown.

*patiently awaits phone call from Nobel prize committee* (there’s a Nobel prize for best off the cuff blog thesis right? Right?)

Now that we’ve had a small scientific segue, back to my original point.

In essence, plants that are stressed need a change of environment and in that regard, the same can be said for people.

If a person is wilting, hungry for more, struggling to grow or needs more space for their roots to spread, the fault is not with that person, but with their environment.

That is exactly what has happened to me this year. The garden has suffered and the blog has suffered. My days were spent in a toxic environment and no matter what I did, I was wilting.

So I’ve taken a leaf (trolololol) out of my book of gardening experience and I’ve decided to change my environment. In a decision that took forever to make and yet only took seconds to finally come to, I’ve left behind my old job and found something far more suited to me.

There’s a very well known saying about money and I’m sure you know exactly which one I mean. The only thing is, most of us get it horribly wrong.

The old adage doesn’t go “money is the root of all evil”. Well it does, but everyone leaves out the most important part, the beginning.

It’s from the bible. The correct quote is in fact “The love of money is the root of all evil”. 1 Timothy 6:10

It’s getting biblical up in here lads (and yes I have in fact read the bible but that’s a topic for another day).

If we break this quote down in its purest grammatical terms (nerd alert) it’s not the noun that is creating the negative outcome, but the verb. It’s the doing. Actions are always undertaken with some level of intent (and yes I believe that love is an action and not just a feeling), and to all intents and purposes, having money doesn’t cause evil, the relentless pursuit of having nothing but money does.

Officially changing my name to Fiona Descartes Kelly. Has a nice ring to it.

Money definitely cant buy happiness, but in a garden you can grow it.

As such, I’ve decided my health and the pursuit of my own happiness and well being is far more important than the pursuit of money, so I’ve struck out and decided to try something new in the hopes that I will have more time to write, more time to garden and to tend to my needs and the needs of my plants.

I have landed myself an amazing freelance content writing role with the super sound team at buzz.ie and I have some very exciting plans for Fiona Grows Food and of course for my garden.

I am in a far healthier environment for my needs now.

All that being said, my allotment has been thriving this year despite the diminished time I’ve spent there the past few weeks.

It helps that the plot is well established now and no matter what, I always have my perennials to enjoy. I did put a lot of work in earlier in the year and it really shows when late summer and early autumn arrive.

I’ve been harvesting mountains of tomatoes, courgettes, raspberries, beetroot and cucumbers and I’m just about to head around to the garden to finally pick some sweetcorn.

I’m excited about the future, I’m excited to grow and I’m excited to spend more time getting down and dirty in my favourite place in the world.

I am warning you though, you’ll be subjected to a lot more of my insane takes on gardening now that I have more time to write about it.

 

You think you’ve seen it all….bikinis in the polytunnel, bare arsed gardening, falling into ponds…but you ain’t seen nothing yet.

 

I’m only getting started.

Absolute Beginner

I find myself in the throes of mid-January blues, broke, tired, a bit soft around the edges; dark mornings made even darker by evenings spent dreaming of May. With no crops to harvest and an allotment that has felt the swift slap of winter winds and the rot of relentless rain; I am definitely suffering from seasonal adjustment disorder. As gardeners, no matter how we like to think we are masters of our small domains, we are slaves to the weather,  that’s not to say we are controlled by it, but we are tethered to it. It is the mean-time by which we set our watches. We dig in time to its beat.

This winter has been a strange one here in Ireland. We are only this week feeling the snap and shiver of frosty mornings, the grass only beginning to crunch beneath our feet. We spent the months of November and December in relatively warm temperatures for mid-winter carried in on weather fronts from the Atlantic that brought storm after storm. Storm Barney was the worst here in Dublin, with winds tearing down trees all over the county and leaving thousands without power. The rain has not let up for weeks, with many parts of the country completely flooded and homes destroyed. Christmas Day was less white and more wet. As for me, the winds drove me indoors and the rains kept me there and having spent the best part of eight weeks avoiding the plot, I can no longer leave her to the sorry fate that winter 2015 bequeathed to her.

IMG_1101

 

My plot has been well and truly beaten by the weather this year. There is a path of destruction through her belly, a river through her heart. My polytunnel is wind damaged, the door is hanging from its hinges. My shed has shifted about four feet to the right and is lopsided. My fencing is little more than ribbon. The protective netting over my beds has gone, carried on the wind somewhere along with my kale and turnips. The only crops left standing are my leeks, though they resemble sad spring onions. It has been a very rough winter on the plot. Yet, the garden fills me with hope. There are buds on my fruit bushes. My spring bulbs are poking their tips above soil. My rhubarb is unfurling its fresh green leaves like a promise.

I have begun the clean up, it will likely take weeks to recover. But, here I am, excited for the year ahead. You see, January may be the lean month, my plot may be bereft, but she is also pregnant with potential. January is an opportunity for a fresh start. In this bleak January, when it feels like music itself has died, I am an absolute beginner again.

And so, if you’re feeling fed up with the winter, if you feel like throwing in the trowel, my advice to you is this: put on your gloves and wellies, make a flask of tea, brave the elements, go out, dig, destroy, construct, sing, yell, cry, plant and clean. Blast David Bowie and have a sob while you weed. Breathe in the cold air and expel warm plumes back into the world. Take what has been damaged and turn it into something beautiful.

Don’t let winter ruin your wonder.

Begin a new garden for a new year.

January makes absolute beginners of us all.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r8NZa9wYZ_U&w=420&h=315]

 

Strike A Pose!

You know the saying, absence makes the heart grown fonder? Well, when it comes to my allotment, absence makes the weeds grow faster. It’s been a very busy few weeks chéz Fiona. I’ve been ill, on holidays, flooded (don’t ask), busy in work, partying, sleeping more partying, and the poor old garden didn’t get a look in. I must admit, I’ve been very very bold. Many apologies for the hiatus, but I am back now with a bang! (BANG!)

Last week, I had a bit of an Ireland’s Next Top Model moment when I was interviewed for an article for the Irish Independent about growing my own food. I’m a regular A-list celebrity now, and yes, you may have an autograph but it will cost you €10,000. Bargain. Now, not only was I interviewed for the article, I was also photographed by a lovely chap named Martin who visited my plot for an hour to take some snaps of me in very awkward poses with my various gardening tools. I did some spectacular vouge-ing with my fork, draped myself over my wheelbarrow á la Rose in Titanic, slightly less naked but far more sexy, I assure you. “Draw me like one of your french gardeners” I whispered over the heady buzz of bees, the sultry scent of lavender filing the air. I strutted, dug, draped, flirted, pouted, stuck out my chest, my bum, I was titillating in my favourite polka dot wellies. “Fabulous, Fiona, you look fabulous, a bit of teeth, show me some va va boom, fabulous”. Snap, click, flash. (I may be embellishing this story a little for dramatic effect, just a little though). I felt like a forking idiot.

The article was a lovely little feature in the Irish Independent about urban gardening in Ireland and featured myself and three other urban gardeners and our efforts to get growing in an urban environment. It’s just a shame my plot was a weedy disaster when the photographer came to visit, I did give him some rhubarb though, in the hopes that he wouldn’t use a horrible photo. Anyway, here’s a link to the article, give it a read.

http://www.independent.ie/life/home-garden/gardens/irelands-urban-gardens-have-never-been-more-vibrant-30506760.html

All autograph requests to fionagrowsfood@gmail.com. Will provide guest appearances at parties for a nominal fee, ready and willing to accept all invites to red carpet events with Michael Fassbender present. Hollywood, here I come.

Putting The Community Back In Gardening

I am accident prone. Just putting it out there. I have a serious propensity for injuring myself in ridiculous and often embarrassing accidents. Never before though, has an injury annoyed me as much as this broken toe. Now I’ve broken toes before, and of course it’s painful and debilitating, and a little embarrassing. This one though, this broken toe has hurt me to the bone (sigh). As a result of limping around for the past three weeks, I’ve been unable to get out to my allotment at all. I’ve missed glorious sunny days and a few weeks worth of planting and weeding. Worst of all though, my broken toe has killed EVERYTHING in my polytunnel. Every last little seedling, every tomato plant, every cucumber, every delicious pumpkin and aubergine. It’s all dead. Gone.

Yesterday, I took a trip (a few trips actually, due to the limping) out to the plot, braced for whatever disaster lay ahead of me. When I arrived, the plot was weedy. Very weedy. There were tall weeds where three weeks ago, no weeds resided. So I, of course, got to weeding. I spent a good three hours hopping around the garden, Joe the robin in tow (toe?) pulling weeds and tidying my beds up.

Now, I knew my polytunnel was in a bad way but I was afraid to go inside. It was as if the longer I put it off, the less likely I would be to cry. Though my tears would have been significantly better irrigation than the scant water my plants had gotten over the past few weeks. Eventually though, I had to venture in. Filled with trepidation, I hopped inside and surveyed the damage that a three week drought in summer could do to my plants.

A lot is the answer. It could do a lot of damage. My beautiful tomato plants had all but withered to a crisp, my cucumbers were all limp and yellow and everything else had simply vanished.

IMAG0880

You can see here how empty the polytunnel looks

I resigned myself to the fact that it was my own fault and decided to just suck it up and chalk it down to experience. I disposed of the dead plants  – always a horrible task – and got planting again. Then, something truly wonderful happened, one of my friends on site, on hearing of my plight, brought me a gift of a beautiful healthy tomato plants and a cucumber plant. Now, this is what I truly love about gardening, particularly community gardening. It’s just that, a community. Gardeners truly are the most generous, friendliest people in the world. Never before I started my allotment, had I experienced such community spirit. I worry sometimes that communities are dead, that the only ones left are those we like on Facebook or Twitter, that our only new friendships are formed through the keys on a laptop or a smartphone. I worry because every hour of every day I see people, friends, lovers, families, sitting together but not really being together.

I even experience it myself most days. Dinner with friends and their phones, cinema with friends and their phones, commutes with strangers and their phones. Next time you’re at a bus stop or train station, look around. How many other people are doing the same? Very few I’d imagine.

When I go to my allotment, people talk to me. Really talk to me. They tell me their stories, they ask me mine. They drink tea with me and swap seeds with me. They ask me for help or offer the same. Nowhere else in my life do I experience this anymore.

I realised that other people are the threads which hold the tapestry of our lives together, which help us make sense of our world, and by cutting ourselves off, we are sure to unravel.

I do believe that community gardens are the way forward.  They are about people of all walks of life, coming together to grow. To grow food, to grow plants, to grow their understanding of the world around them, the grow their knowledge, and that of their children. To grow.

Last summer, I had a bit of a rough time. To be completely honest, I was very depressed. Now, mental health issues are not something we like to talk about, hear about or even read about, but there they are anyway and there it was, every day for months. I was suffering with insomnia, I couldn’t eat, I lost over three stone in as many months. I struggled to get out of bed in the morning, I struggled to even leave my house. Here is what saved me: a community garden. Not mine, mind you, but a beautiful walled garden in a local park. St Anne’s Allotment Gardens is the site on which my parents have their beautiful plot and each year they hold an open day to coincide with the annual rose festival which runs in the park. I was dragged along to this by my parents when I was at my lowest point.

DSCF0955

Selling veggies with the St Annes allotmenteers

On arrival, I spoke to seven people in twenty minutes who I had never even met before and felt like I knew every single one of them. Within an hour, I was helping to sell plot grown veggies on a market stall, chatting and bartering with everyone passing by. An hour after that, I was enthralled by a beekeeper who opened a hive to let me photograph the queen. And as the day cooled down and the crowds dispersed, I sat with a group of 30 or so gardeners, eating delicious bbq food and salads from their plots while enjoying a cold beer and learning about how they each garden and what it means to them. And that day helped saved me, that community. I realised that other people are the threads which hold the tapestry of our lives together, which help us make sense of our world, and by cutting ourselves off, we are sure to unravel.

Community gardening at it's tastiest

Community gardening at it’s tastiest

And, I do believe, we all need gardens. Some may not want them, or even like them, but we need them if we are to survive. That is a fact. My reasoning is this: we were born to survive. To procreate and to provide sustenance for ourselves and our loved ones. And I believe the satisfaction of gardening harks back to the hunter gatherer sentiment in us, we need to know how to hunt, how to gather. We need to know how to grow our own food. I believe it satisfies in us, our basic, primal instincts.

So, in effect, community gardening encompasses two of our most basic needs as human beings. I am never really as happy as I am when I’m out on the plot, doing my own thing, growing food, being an important contributor to the planet in my own small way. Never as happy as when somebody approaches me for a chat about my plot, or theirs, or about how to grow a certain plant. Or when somebody knows I’ve suffered a setback and gives me two beautiful plants to help get me back on track. And how something that was probably so insignificant to them, was very significant to me and gave me hope that all was not lost.

 

And I know my plot will be ok, it’s already getting back on track, I’ve dealt with most of the weeds, there’s a mountain of produce growing already and it is still fairly early in the season. Currently I have Rhubarb, Kale, Spinach, Rocket, Pak Choi, Rapsberries, Blueberries, Artichokes, Asparagus, Blackberries, Redcurrants, Beetroot, Baby Carrots, Broad Beans, Dwarf French Beans, Climbing French Beans, Pumpkins, Squash, Courgettes, Tomatoes, Cucumbers, Onions, Leeks, Garlic and that’s not to mention all my herbs and flowers and the many crops I still have to plant this year. So, broken toe or not, I’m kicking last year in the arse in terms of what I’m growing.

Some greenery on the plot for the first time in a long time

IMAG0873

Amazing to think this will be dinner in a few weeks

So, to sum it up, If I could give you one piece of solid advice about your short life in this world, get out there and get yourself involved in a community garden, it’ll change everything, I promise.

Thank you to Pat for the wonderful plants, thank you to all my fellow plot holders for the chats and thank you to you for reading this so my friends don’t have to listen to me harping on about my garden again. If I’m not careful, one of these days they’ll plant me in it.