A house, a home

We’ve lived in our house for over a decade now. It’s nothing special as far as houses go. A three-bedroom, semi-detached, ex-Council house on the edge of a medium-sized market town in Somerset. But it’s a nice, well-built house, with friendly neighbours and a reasonably large garden for where it is. And it’s on a nice street in a nice part of town. But it’s not just our house. It’s our home. Continue reading

Desperately seeking ninja

It’s a bit embarrassing, really, but I have a confession to make. Something that’s been nagging at me for a little while now, and that I feel I ought really to bring out into the open. Daylight being the best disinfectant and all that. So here’s the thing. I appear to have, well, sort of misplaced a small ninja. Continue reading

A sense of place

It’s the question that I dread above all others. A conversation starter that stops me dead in my tracks. Four little words that confuse and conspire. An innocent enquiry that sends me spiralling into an abyss of self-doubt. I’m thirty seven years old and I’m still not able to answer that most simple of queries: ‘Where are you from?’

I want to say that I was born in Suffolk, that I grew up in Dorset and that I went to university in Staffordshire. That I have lived in England, France, Germany, Russia and the United States. That I currently reside in Somerset but have no idea how much longer I’ll be there. But all that comes out of my mouth is ‘Oh, all over, really.’ And what I mean is ‘I haven’t a clue’.

We all have many attributes that define us, from our gender and our physical appearance to our taste in music and our choice of career. But our geographical heritage lies at the heart of who we consider ourselves to be. Whether we’re a northerner, a southerner, Yorkshireman, Cornishman, Liverpudlian or Bristolian, these are still the ties that bind.

I can see why this was such a big thing in decades and centuries past, when people rarely moved more than a few miles from where they were born. But in this age of cheap travel, insecure employment and wide-eyed globalisation, what does it mean to ask someone where they are from? Do we mean where they were born? Or where they live now? Or where they have lived for the longest period of time? Can any of us, in fact, now even claim to be from anywhere at all?

I think we can. But it’s not as simple as it used to be. Some of us have a clear idea of where we are from. It might, for a privileged few, be the ancestral family home in Oxfordshire or the Scottish highlands. For others it is the house in which we grew up and where our parents still live. Indeed, I have several friends in their thirties, all with houses and families of their own, who still refer to visiting their parents as ‘going home’.

Others of us, meanwhile, lead a more nomadic lifestyle, moving from place to place in response to the demands of family, career or simple curiosity. We collect addresses and residency permits like our childhood selves used to accumulate stamps or football cards. Some places pass fleetingly through our consciousness, but others leave an indelible impression on our soul. They become part of who we are.

I challenge anyone, for example, to spend time in the wilds of Scotland and not develop a sense of awe at the majesty of nature. Or in Russia and not learn to reflect on the darkness of the human condition. Or in rural Provence and not long for the simplicity of a life built by one’s own hands.

Just as scientists can tell from our bones, our hair and our teeth much about when, where and how we have lived, the places we have called home all make a difference to how we think, feel and behave. We absorb a tiny part of that place’s culture, traditions and values, adding them to the ever-growing repository of ideas and attitudes that we call ‘me’.

So if you want to learn what makes me tick, ask me about the things that have influenced me the most. Ask me about the people I have known, the things I have done and the places I have been. Ask me where I have lived, where I have loved and where I have felt most alive. Just don’t, please, ask me where I’m from.

Welcome to the microfarm

I’m always a little bit jealous of people who work full time as farmers, growers or gardeners. Sure, the pay is terrible and they can’t put things off just because it’s raining. But they get to devote themselves to what they love. They can do what needs to be done when it needs to be done, rather than putting it off for weeks at a time because other things get in the way.

I appreciate that I’m perhaps idealising the horticultural life a little too much here. I also recognise that such a career has more than its fair share of ups and downs. But in the last couple of weeks, I’ve tried to introduce some of this ethos – of working to the plants’ timescales, rather than to my own – into how I relate to my own little patch of earth. I’ve stopped thinking of it as a tatty greenhouse and a few raised beds, and started thinking of it as a micro-farm.

I started off by making a list of all the jobs that need to be done at the moment. And I mean everything that needs to be done, not just the things I want to do. Even things like emptying the slug traps and weeding around the shed. Needless to say, it was a fairly long list. And I’ll keep adding to it as successional batches of seeds need to be sown, seedlings need to be potted up and shrubs need to be pruned. (I’ve got my list on a little A4 whiteboard, so it’s easy to keep it up to date.)

My next step has been to devote an hour each morning, as soon as I’ve got back from walking the dog, to working through some of the tasks on my list. So far, this ‘little and often’ approach has been rather enlightening, giving me a real feeling of satisfaction as I storm through the huge number of tasks that have been bugging me for ages. It also leaves the weekends, which I’d usually use to try to catch up on absolutely everything I needed to do in the garden, for larger projects, like building a new cold frame.

I’ve now got all of my seeds planted, except for the ‘sow in mid-May’ ones, which are on the list for this week. Here are just a few of them.

Seedlings

The courgettes and squashes are just starting to sprout their first proper leaves, so they’ll be off out into one of the cold frames soon, to toughen them up prior to being planted out into the garden.

Courgette seedlings

In addition to my regular range of flowers, fruit and vegetables, I’m trying a few more exotic things. Below are dahlia seedlings, freshly pinched out to encourage them to be short and bushy rather than tall and lanky. (My garden, being long and narrow, has the characteristics of a wind tunnel.) I’ve read in James Wong’s book ‘Homegrown Revolution‘ that you can eat dahlia tubers, so I’m keen to try this out. At James’s suggestion, I’m growing cucamelons, electric daisies, inca berries, alpine strawberries, elephant garlic, quinoa, mooli and watercress, too.

Dahlia seedlings

I’m also trying to give my regular outdoor vegetables a bit more of a chance against the slugs by starting them off in little plugs, which I’ll plant out once they’re a decent size. And with the winter here lasting until about two weeks ago, planting out directly hasn’t really been an option. I can sow a second batch directly into the beds now, though, and can see how they compare with the plugs.

Vegetable seedlings

I have a slight tendency to focus on my vegetables at the expense of my other plants, so I’ve been careful to look after the non-edibles, too. For example, I’ve trimmed the dead leaves off my ferns and have potted up the little offshoots that have sprung up.

The ferns

I’ve also taken the significant step of pruning the older stems off my Euphorbia rigida, a rather messy job that I’d been putting off for several months. Needless to say, once I’d found my gloves and dug out the secateurs, the pruning itself only took ten minutes. The feeling of achievement that accompanied it, though, lasted significantly longer.

Euphorbia rigida

Ditto for having tidied up and potted on the various Euphorbia and Hebe cuttings that I’d accumulated at the bottom of the garden. I’d taken loads of cuttings about two years ago, potted them up and then left them to go feral on the gravel between the willow hedge and the shed. I’d felt really bad about neglecting them, but clearly not bad enough to actually do anything about it. Well, now it’s done. I had to ditch some of them but the rest are looking good, even if I do say so myself.

Hebes

I’ve even made seed bombs.  Yes, seed bombs. I bought a book on making wildflower seed bombs (‘Seedbombs: Going Wild with Wildflowers’, by Josie Jeffery) some time ago, together with a bag of clay powder that has been sitting in the living room ever since. So one morning last week, I put on an old jumper and got my hands (and the jumper, the shed and the dog) dirty making seed bombs. (And yes, I was careful to use native, non-invasive flower seeds.) Here are some of my inaugural batch.

Seedbombs

And here’s my first test subject, nestling into the bark chip underneath one of the apple trees by the vegetable garden. I’ve also cautiously ‘planted’ a few on some of my regular dog walking routes around town, so that I can see how well they fare. Exciting stuff.

Seedbomb

So while I’m not a farmer and probably won’t ever be a farmer, I’m trying to bring a little of the farming ethos into my life. Nothing excessive, just a small amount of planning, a tiny bit of coordination and a little hard work every day. Welcome to the micro-farm.