From Tower Block to Four Acres: Winter 2013

Originally posted in UK Handmade Magazine: Winter 2013

The seasons have turned, the nights have drawn in and I no longer have the luxury of long evenings to complete garden tasks after my day job is finished. On my three freelance days, I work 9am till 5pm and then from 5pm till 9pm in the garden (8am-9pm or 6am- 7pm on the other four days). Daylight vanishes before I’ve finished harvesting and packing my produce for market. I now have to plan ahead and finish off in the packing shed under the electric light. The insects come inside for warmth and tap frenetically against the light bulb.

I’ve learnt a lot this year and, although it’s not yet a full year since my arrival at Oakcroft, it has been a full growing season. The freezing, snowy, tail end of winter in February when I arrived, was chased out by the strong, clearing spring winds of March and April. Then the sun came and warmed the ground for my seedlings, enjoying itself so much that it lazed around in the sky for weeks on end whilst everything in the garden grew fat. I would spend three hours every day watering it all, not to mention the lunchtime trips into the greenhouses to spray tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers with water to keep them cool and humid. It felt like a summer from childhood, with long hot days, sunburn, wasp stings and ant bites. My work in the garden (or on the computer) was punctuated by strawberries eaten straight from the field, and tomatoes eaten from the vine, wrapped in basil leaves picked from the plant below. It was luxurious to have so much natural abundance.

But now the wind has picked up, rain is blowing in and winter proper will be here before we know it. I’ve put the garden to sleep, some of it mulched under cardboard to smother weeds and feed the soil, and I’ve fed other parts of the ground with a “green manure”, a crop planted to restore nutrients to the soil. The outside areas of the moveable greenhouses are planted with crops for winter and next spring, and I’m already planning for next year. A culinary and medicinal herb garden is going to be a new part of the garden design. The larger of my rare, fifty year old, horticultural heritage glasshouses is being renovated and restored now before the worst of the weather hits. Mehr and I don’t think it will last another winter without the work being done. We’re also dreaming of building an eco-house at the top of the field (maybe next year, maybe the one after) and I’ll begin its design over the winter months too. It will be a place for volunteers to stay in, in exchange for working in the garden.

My plans for next year also include crops for all seasons, so that I won’t need to break for winter like this year; I want to be able to provide food all year round for both myself and my customers. After years of living in London, I’m finally learning to drive so that, next year, I can do more farmers markets. Although hibernation is a tempting option, I want to offer craft and permaculture workshops at Oakcroft during the garden’s quieter months and I may even begin workshops this winter. Permaculture is about living lightly on the planet and is a combination of ethics, principles and design, focused on creating sustainable, healthy and productive systems. The three ethics at the heart of permaculture are earth care, people care and fair shares. In permaculture design, we focus on using nature as our teacher, looking at her complex and sustainable ecosystems, and then try to replicate them. This design approach can be applied to everything; from land-based design to lifestyle changes and business plans, and even designing craft projects. Believe me, I’ve tried them all.

The garden has taught me a great deal this year. I’ve learned about the tenacity of nature and of my own nature. It has shown me true abundance and I’m amazed at how much produce has been grown when I’m using just a small amount of the land. I still find it incredible that tiny seeds grow into plants that have leaves or fruit which we can then eat. Beautiful apple blossom, which emerged around the time of my birthday in the spring, has transformed into gorgeous, shiny red and dusky, russet green apples in the orchard. If we’re careful about the picking and storing, we’ll have apples until February. As a life-long city dweller, it makes my heart sing to be able to just “pop down to the orchard” and pick an apple when I fancy, rather than pop to the corner shop or supermarket to buy one.

It’s the subversiveness of this system of food production that appeals to me. Using organic growing methods and sustainable designs for future growth in the garden, is an experiment in post-industrial agriculture. Small-scale, chemical-free, good, healthy, locally-produced food is a sustainable model for the future. A move away from the dominance of supermarkets and heavily industrialised food production, it’s the same as buying from the independent designer/maker selling her goods directly to you at craft markets, instead of buying mass-produced items from the high street. I’m growing my own food and food for the people around me. Being able to provide a wide range of crops – even at my beginner stage – shows that it can be done. I like knowing how to do things myself in the same way that I like to knit my own jumpers and sew my own clothes. Rather than just being a passive consumer, I can now grow my own food! It’s empowering, liberating and, most importantly, it’s attainable. Grab that pot, that soil, those seeds. Plant them, care for them with water, warmth and light. See what grows.

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Lisa Margreet | designer | writer | teacher | farmer | image