I remember my mother telling me, during my more bolshie teenage moments, that it is perfectly normal for youngsters to be ideological. Wanting to tackle the injustices in the world or take a stand against the established order is part of being young but these sentiments fade with age. In some ways she was right. Paying the rent, negotiating the daily commute, keeping on top of the laundry and the endless other daily chores inevitably deflect energy to more mundane struggles. But even as a teenager I realised that you never really shake off your anger at Goliaths who throw their weight around or at ill-considered rules perpetuated by inertia or vested interests. Watching my mother take a stand against oppressive regimes and bullying corporations every time she did the grocery shopping told me as much.
Recently I have been reflecting on mum’s words more and more. Two decades later I still seethe at socio-economic injustice, large and small, and at ‘truths’ expounded by governments and big business that we are expected to accept compliantly. My youthful idealism may have gone but as my understanding of economics, politics and social organisation has deepened, I seem to be more determined in my refusal to just accept the status quo. There are no placards, no demonstrations, no storming of barricades but like my mother, I am taking a stand with my daily actions and choices. And nowhere is that more obvious than in the garden.
From nature’s armoury rather than the garden centre
As I use natural methods (or organic if you prefer), some might call my gardening style an act of rebellion. For a long while, I did not really register it as such. I have always cooked from scratch to ensure maximum nutrients and avoid unnecessary fats, sugars, artificial flavourings and preservatives. Why then would I reach for over-packaged industrially produced chemicals in the garden, which after all is an extension of the larder!
What is more, from years of watching my mother, I know I do not need to waste good money on products, whose production, distribution and disposal account for tonnes of unnecessary greenhouse gas emissions, to reinvigorate the soil, kill pests or destroy weeds. Instead I have adopted the traditional practices my mum used, like making my own compost, keeping weeds at bay with a hoe and mulch and intermingling plants and flowers to confuse pests and attract nature’s natural pollinators and pest controllers. As the seasons go buy I have picked up more natural methods with the help of books, like John Walker’s* excellent How to create an eco-garden, as well as advice generously shared by other gardeners.
Who needs plastic bottles of Tomatorite when home-brewed comfrey tea provides tomatoes with the potassium boost they need. Noxious slug pellets that harm other wildlife may keep slugs at bay but so do nightly hunts and squishing of slugs, beer traps and crushed shells. (Mr M is quite used to me asking the waiter to pop the empty clam shells in a bag after a linguine alle vongole!) And simple insect hotels made with off-cuts of scavenged wood attract friendly predators who feast on pesky pests.
Although I did not set out to be a rebel, I have come to realise that my old-school gardening is not just a life-enhancing pastime, I am also taking a stand. With every spade of homemade peat-free compost, handful of green manure seeds, pot of vibrant calendula, watering can of diluted comfrey feed… I am ignoring marketeers’ promises of quick fixes that come with long-lasting effects for the atmosphere, soil, water and other wildlife.
Why I am doubling production in 2013
Besides this gentle daily rebellion, there are also decisive actions prompted by infantilising pronouncements or disempowering policies. When faced with those, I become a bolshie teenager again! Like last week, when the Potato Council suggested amateur gardeners and allotment holders had contributed to the spread of late blight. Apparently we are too ignorant or inexperienced to recognise the symptoms of potato blight and have no idea of how to limit the damage if it strikes.**
I, like many grow-your-own (GYO) gardeners, am outraged by such comments. In my experience, most of us ‘amateur’ growers are extremely enquiring, responsible and careful. With a tiny plot or small urban garden, we have no choice. We tend our micro-holdings with care as every ounce of food we harvest is precious. We research the crops we grow extensively, we read up on how best to nurture them, what pests and diseases to watch out for… We do everything we can, often working holistically with the soil, plants and other wildlife, to minimise dangers that can decimate our ‘harvest’. If we are unlucky enough to spot signs of disease, we act quickly. We are hardly the uninformed, incompetent or reckless souls the Potato Council would have you believe.
The Council’s recommendation that we buy healthy produce from retailers is, of course, likely to backfire. Many of us GYO gardeners grow some of our own food because we want an alternative to the commercially grown produce on offer. We want to get away from the bland product of monoculture, from fruit and vegetables that have been repeatedly sprayed with synthetic pesticides or fungicides. We know that with some work, care and a bit of luck we can enjoy flavoursome food, which has been grown in conditions we have managed naturally. Which is exactly why I, in a fit of teenage indignation, have doubled my order of seed potatoes for next year!
* For a taster of John Walker’s common sense and encouraging style, take a look at his article over at Hartley Botanic in which he explains why he does not use chemicals to tackle pests.