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.

The cost of things

I’m a big fan of the ‘slow’ movement. For those not familiar with the concept, ‘slow’ is about doing things mindfully, taking the time to focus on what we are doing and making a conscious effort to do it well. ‘Slow food’, for example, encourages people to choose fresh, high quality ingredients, to cook them with care and to take the time to enjoy eating them, preferably with family or friends.

This approach has spread – slowly – to other disciplines, so that we are now starting to see things such as ‘slow cities’, ‘slow working’ and, indeed, ‘slow living’. Often dismissed as a new-age, lefty indulgence, it is, rather, a welcome rally against the cult of speed that threatens to take over so many aspects of our lives. For adherents of slow, life is something to be savoured and enjoyed. The journey is as important as the destination.

One of my favourite slow concepts is that of ‘eigenzeit’. It comes from the German ‘eigen’, meaning one’s own, and ‘zeit’, meaning time. The idea that everything, if we are to do it well, requires a certain amount of time. Now, the particular amount of time required clearly depends on the specific task in hand, but if you try to do it any quicker than its ‘eigenzeit’, then you will inevitably do it badly or not at all.

Take my garden, for example. I know that it’s going to take me an hour to cut the grass, if I include trimming the edges and tidying up the clippings afterwards. I’ve done it quite a few times now and it has never taken me less than an hour. It sometimes takes me more time, particularly if I’m having an off day or stop to chat with my neighbour, but never less. Now, I could save time by only cutting the more visible parts of the lawn, by leaving the edges to fend for themselves or by not bothering to tidy up afterwards. But that’s not ‘cutting the grass’ as I’ve defined it. My task has an eigenzeit of sixty minutes. It’s a fact.

In a similar vein, I would like to propose the concept of ‘eigenkosten’. We already know what ‘eigen’ means, and ‘kosten’ is German for – and you may be able to guess this – costs. If we are to produce a good or a service to a certain standard of quality, there is – in my view – a minimum amount that it must cost. We might be able to shave a few pounds off here and there by being more efficient or whatever, but we will eventually reach a point where we can’t cut costs any more. That’s the ‘eigenkosten’.

If we try to drive down the cost of something below its eigenkosten, bad things happen. Some producers will just stop what they are doing and go off and try something else. We’re seeing this at the moment in the dairy industry, where farmers are selling off their herds due to the unrealistically low price that they are able to get for each pint of milk that they – or, rather, their cows – produce.

Alternatively, producers might simply struggle on, making a loss on what they do, in the hope that something will turn up or that circumstances will change. Or they might change the goods or services that they provide, sticking to the ones that they can afford to deliver or reducing the quality of what they produce. This is the situation, for example, in local government across the UK, where funding cuts are having a direct impact on the nature, scope and quality of public services.

Sometimes, however, producers will opt to respond to cost pressures by trying to hoodwink us. They will cheat. They will reduce the cost of their goods or services below the eigenkosten by using sub-standard raw materials, by cutting corners in production or by claiming to have done things that they have not. It is looking increasingly likely that this is what is happening across Europe with the substitution of horse-meat in beef products, for example, but this is hardly the only instance where producers have responded in this way.

The slow movement tells us that we need to think carefully about how much things cost to produce and how much we are willing to pay for them. We need to be prepared to pay a fair price for the things we need and to challenge those who seek to do otherwise. We need to recognise that everything  has a minimum cost – its eigenkosten – and that to seek to drive prices below this is to pay disrespect to the goods and services that we consume, as well as to those who work hard to produce them.

Most definitely not an apology

There have been a slew of books in the past few years promoting what I would tentatively term a kind of ‘militant atheism’. The sensitively titled ‘The God Delusion’ by Richard Dawkins is a prime example, though authors such as the late Christopher Hitchens and others have also contributed heavily to the genre. In fact, Hitchens termed himself an ‘anti-theist’, which is perhaps a more appropriate description of the message that these writers – and organisations such as the British Humanist Association – espouse.Unapologetic

While not an overly religious person myself, I have no objection to those of faith. And even as a physicist I am tending towards the view that science cannot explain everything and should perhaps stop pretending that it can. But I am highly dubious of any individuals or organisations, faith-based or otherwise, that try tell people what they should think, what they should do and how they should behave.

So it was with great delight that I stumbled upon Francis Spufford’s book ‘Unapologetic’. Short enough to be read over the course of a couple of lazy afternoons, it is a very personal – and well-written – account of the author’s relationship with Christianity. While it does not seek to defend Christian ideas, it does – as Spufford points out – spring to the defence of ‘Christian emotions – of their intelligibility, of their grown-up dignity’. And it does so with style, wit and grace.

At the heart of the author’s narrative is the ‘Human Propensity to F**k Things Up’ (HPtFtU).* We all, he argues, screw things up from time to time. Usually, we can recover from these calamities fairly quickly, but sometimes they have more profound or far-reaching consequences. This doesn’t make us ‘bad’ or ‘evil’. It just makes us human. We’re bombarded constantly with images and ideas of how we ‘should’ be, which inevitably make us feel like pathetic excuses for human beings**, but we need to accept that we are who we are. We need, in short, to embrace our HPtFtU.

From here, Spufford takes us on an almost ‘stream of consciousness’*** exploration through his own spiritual and religious experience. It’s not really an argument ‘for’ or ‘against’ religion or the existence of God, but rather the author’s own personal voyage of discovery into what he himself describes as not ‘the kind of thing you can know’. I’ll resist the temptation to go into more detail or to quote my favourite bits, though, because (a) the narrative – and, indeed, the topic – doesn’t lend itself to being summarised, (b) there’s no index and I can’t find the bits I want to quote, and (c) you really should read it for yourself.

I suspect that this book will not be everyone’s cup of tea. Yes, it does meander a little. And yes, it does resort to pop culture references a little more frequently than is perhaps necessary. But it is an intensely personal account of something that clearly makes up a large part of who the author is, so I think we can allow him to write it how he wants. And while Spufford doesn’t try to get us to share his beliefs, merely to understand them, I can’t help but feel that his conclusions resonate for all of us, theists, atheists, agnostics and anti-theists alike. We are all going to f**k things up from time to time. But that shouldn’t mean that we approach life tentatively or with trepidation. ‘Don’t be afraid,’ he says. ‘Far more can be mended than you know.’

* If you’re looking for a nice cuddly book to read aloud to elderly relatives, don’t choose this one. It’s a bit sweary. Or rather, it’s written how most of us speak most of the time…

** Or this might just be me.

*** Most of the book, the author mentions in the notes at the end, was written without much in the way of research in a Cambridge branch of a well-know chain of coffee shops. (Don’t we all want to write like that?)

There goes the sun

We’re having some great sunsets this week. Here’s yesterday’s. It might not look that brilliant, but after several weeks of non-stop cloud and torrential rain, even the tiniest bit of sunshine is worth celebrating…

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And just look how it made the church glow…

IMAG0104Which reminds me, I went out at the weekend and took some photos of the flood water. Our little corner of Somerset looked for a while just like the Lake District. And some bits still do. I’ll get the pictures online soon. (Mega-hectic work week…)

A brief foray into poetry

I’m not a big writer of poetry, but I stumbled recently across this short poem that I wrote a couple of years ago. I’d just spent a long day in the office at my previous job and was in the middle of a three hour train commute home. I felt absolutely rotten and found myself pulling out my pad and pen to try to express how I felt.

It was only when I read the poem back to myself a few days later that I realised how urgently I needed to change the way I lived. And now, a couple of years on, you’ll be relieved to hear that I’m much happier and working hard to live my kind of life. Anyway, enough waffle. Here’s the poem. It’s called ‘The Roar’.

 

The Roar

I hear a quiet voice from deep

somewhere inside my soul.

It tells me that I’m going too fast;

the roar is in control.

 

This constant drive to be the best,

my fervent need to win.

The voice wants me to still the roar,

to let the silence in.

 

I try to listen to the voice,

to what it has to say.

But soon the roar just drowns it out

as life gets in the way.

 

The roar gets louder, louder still;

leaves chaos in its wake.

In time, the means becomes the end –

a roar for roaring’s sake.

 

What is this life I choose to lead,

indentured to the roar?

Why can’t I listen to the voice

and be myself once more?

 

In the gloaming

The gloaming is that fleeting, magical time just after sunset but before darkness. We hardly notice it in the summer because it stays light so late. But as the days get shorter, the gloaming’s nearly-night-time arrives ever earlier. Our bodies tell us that it’s time to hunker down for the evening. But our watches, sadly, tell us that it’s only half past four and our to-do lists point out politely that there’s no chance of slumping onto the sofa for at least another couple of hours.

Which is why, at this time of year, Molly and I invariably find ourselves taking our evening walk in this odd half-light, when the daytime is over but the night-time proper hasn’t really kicked in. Now, you might argue that a moonlight stroll is a perfect, even rather romantic, end to the day. But when (a) it is cold, (b) it is muddy, (c) one of you is tired after a day’s work and (d) the other one of you is a nuts Labrador, romantic is not the first adjective that comes to mind.

The views over the valley at this time of day, though, are pretty spectacular. Which is the main reason for this post. Because it has been raining here all day, but as the sun went down the rain stopped and we had a brief moment of calm as the moon rose in the sky and the world prepared itself for bed. As usual, though, I’d forgotten to take a proper camera so was forced to rely on my very rubbish camera phone.

Anyway, here’s the moon over the valley. The three bright points of light in a little row are the floodlights at the football pitch in the next village along. Must be soccer practice tonight. Most of the other lights are street lights along the main road, with some houses mixed in.

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Here’s the view looking west, where you can see that the sun has only just gone down. You can see the lights from a couple of remote cottages in the valley below, but there’s not really much here between us and the sea.

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OK, so the zoom on my camera phone is fairly awful. But I just loved the colours in the sky; the way it goes from pink to blue so delicately, silhouetting the hills below and the clouds above.

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On our way home, we passed the local church and the porch light cast this welcoming glow across the graveyard. I know it’s wonky and blurred (the photo, not the church), but given that I was holding my camera phone and the end of the dog’s lead in the same hand, I’m just glad you can make out anything at all.

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And then, as quickly as it had arrived, the twilight of the gloaming was replaced by true darkness. In wintertime, this ephemeral period is most definitely my favourite time of day. Or is it night? Whatever. Here’s to the gloaming.

Yoga and fresh berries in the morning? Not so much.

I was reading my wife’s copy of Red magazine yesterday evening* and came across a short feature in which various contributors gave readers an insight into their morning routines. Yoga, soothing cups of tea and granola with fresh berries featured strongly. So much so that I could imagine the fluffy white bathrobes, the designer breakfast bars and the tall shiny fridges full of healthy and nutritious ingredients.

Now, I don’t know about you, but my mornings bear little resemblance to this. (And I doubt the contributors’ mornings do, either, if we’re being honest.) So in the interest of fairness and balance, here’s what a regular morning looks like in the real world. Namely this morning. In my world. Please try to keep up. And don’t read any further if you’re eating.

I wake at 5.21am** when the boiler comes on and the pump lets out its usual screech as it warms up. I spend a couple of minutes worrying about whether today’s screech is longer than yesterday’s, meaning that I might have to do something about it, but conclude that it’s about the same and go back to sleep.

I wake again around an hour later when I feel a nuzzling against the back of my neck. I turn to greet my lovely wife, the presumed source of the nuzzling, and come face to face with a  slobbery, grinning Labrador, who has somehow managed to wiggle her way (unnoticed) up to the pillow***. I fend off the dog as best as I can and try to go back to sleep.

Natalie’s alarm goes off and a startled snort emanates from the pile of duvet next to me. A hand reaches out and presses the snooze button. Everyone lies expectantly, and completely awake, for four minutes until the alarm goes off again. The dog’s tail starts to wag uncontrollably. Sleep time is clearly over, so I roll out of bed. I land squarely in my slippers (result!) and then walk confidently into the wall next to the door.

The dog and I spend the next ten minutes wandering around the garden. I’m glad that I remembered to put my ‘outside’ Crocs on, but wish that I’d remembered my dressing gown. It reminds me of the time, back before we’d repaired the fence (and, luckily, before we’d got a dog), when I wandered out into the garden in my dressing gown and met my neighbour, also in her dressing gown, who’d clambered in to retrieve her chickens. Such is life around here.

The dog starts to dig up one of the vegetable beds. I wrestle her out from among the raspberry canes and encourage her to go to the loo so that we can have breakfast. (Oops, that doesn’t sound quite right. I didn’t mean it like that. I just meant that I can’t go in and get breakfast until she’s… Oh, sod it. You know damn well what I mean.) The dog catches a scent and tries to climb over the fence. I hustle her indoors before she realises how high she can jump****.

I weigh out the dog’s breakfast and make myself a quick coffee (using my Nespresso machine) while Molly hoovers her way through the kibble and Pedigree Chum. I feel briefly like George Clooney as I lean against the counter and sip my java. Then I realise that I’ve got dog slobber down the front of my pyjamas. And mud from the vegetable bed. I’m sure George doesn’t have to put up with this.

We still have a bit of bread left, so I make myself a honey sandwich for breakfast (no granola here, I’m afraid) and munch through it while I wait for Natalie to vacate the bathroom. Natalie wanders out and the dog queue-jumps me to get at the water bowl next to the shower. I bet George doesn’t have to put up with this, either. To be honest, I’m not sure why I put up with this.

Once everyone’s washed and Natalie’s headed off for work, Molly and I set out for our walk. We return an hour later well exercised and, predictably, covered in mud. Molly thinks this is excellent, so I grab her and wipe off the worst of it with a towel. She wipes off the rest on the settee. I put a throw over the settee to cover up the mud and the dog hair.

It is now 8.50am. Time for work. I put the kettle on.

* Yes, I read Red magazine. It’s important to be in touch with one’s feminine side. And it’s actually quite a good read. Get over it.

** It’s really set for 5.30am, but the clock’s wrong and I can’t be bother to go through the faff of resetting it for the sake of a measly nine minutes.

*** Yes, the dog usually sleeps on the end of the bed. It’s winter. It’s cold. What are you going to do? Report me to the RSPCA?

**** She can easily jump a six foot fence, but I’d really rather she didn’t figure that out.

A weekend in Dublin (Part 2)

You may remember that I wrote last week about my recent trip to Dublin and promised to post more when I had a few minutes. Well, I’m sat here at my desk about to start work, so thought I’d tell you a bit more about my visit while I have a cup of coffee and before the day starts in earnest.

One of the highlights of our trip was a short visit to Howth, which is a small-ish fishing community that has become a commuter suburb of Dublin itself. It’s on a beautiful part of the coast with a great beach and lots of seafood restaurants – and it’s only about twenty minutes from the city on the handy DART train service.

We started off with a bit of a wander around to get our bearings. This wasn’t too difficult, as there are only a few streets and the village is on a hill, so you can always see where you are in relation to the harbour. Here’s the church in the middle of the town, which I thought was particularly picturesque.

Howth Church

We also took a stroll along the sea wall that embraces the fairly sizeable harbour, most of which is now filled with sailing boats and other pleasure craft, though there seems to still be a small fishing fleet. Here’s the harbour.

Howth Harbour

As you can see, we weren’t the only people who’d come here for a nice walk on a sunny autumn day. In fact, a fair proportion of Dublin seemed to have had the same idea.

Howth Harbour Wall

This is the old harbour lighthouse at the end of the sea wall. It’s not operational now, as it has been replaced by a more modern light-bulb-on-a-stick type affair. But as a symbol of ‘here’s a welcoming harbour, safe from the storm’, I much prefer this one. If you’re into these things, as I am, then there’s a brilliant short history here.

Howth Habour Light

After our walk, we decided to have a spot of lunch. There is a long row of seafood restaurants and cafes along the harbourside, but we weren’t feeling particularly posh so grabbed some seafood chowder and squid rings from a stall in the car park and ate them sitting on a wall. Sat among the hustle and bustle of the harbour, sunshine + crisp sea air + a bowl of hot soup = one happy Simon.

After we’d finished our impromptu meal, we headed off for a walk along the big sandy beach that extends away from the village. The island you can see in the photo below is Ireland’s Eye, which looked like a great place to go kayaking (if one has a kayak). The island’s odd name has a bit of a story behind it, which you can read here if you so wish. (Don’t build your hopes up, it’s only a bit of a story.)

Ireland's Eye

And don’t worry, there hasn’t been a tsunami. This fishing boat was just on shore being repaired.

Howth Beach

All in all, a fantastic day out. And we still had time to head back into Dublin city centre and do a bit of book shopping. So if you’re in town and looking for something to do for half a day or so, I’d heartily recommend a quick trip to Howth. And make sure you try the chowder.

They didn’t teach me that at school

I’ve been learning quite a lot recently. Since my father died a couple of years ago, I have been helping my mother to move back from France, where they lived, and to get her settled here in the UK. This has meant finding somewhere to rent here, selling the house in France and sorting out the enormous amount of administrative stuff that comes with it.

Now, my mother is not – how shall I put this – the most organised of individuals. If she wants to do something, then she’ll generally do it. But when it comes to things that she’d rather not think about, such as paying bills or doing her tax return, then she has a remarkable capacity to forget all about them.

Take this morning, for instance. My mother rang me with the news that the plumber had arrived at the house in France to fix the heating, only to find that there was no mains water. He rang my mother, who promptly rang me. I rang the water company, who informed me that the water had been cut off because my mother has not paid the bill. Fantastic.

Annoying, but easy enough to sort out. I convinced the lovely people at the water company to send me a copy of the bill, so that I can make sure that my mother pays it and that the water gets turned back on. All done and dusted. Experience tells me, though, that while this particular crisis is well on its way to being managed, it will inevitably not be long before something else crops up.

The snag, from my point of view, is two-fold. Firstly, I’m the only one in my family who speaks French, so when problems arise with things in France, I’m the one my mother calls. And secondly, I’m far too nice to say no. She is my mother, after all, and I want her to get everything sorted out, even if it is – at the current rate – likely to take decades.

It’s also a great learning experience for me. Over the last couple of years I’ve learned how to surf French bureaucracy and have developed my language skills in hitherto unexpected areas. Here are just a few examples, in broadly chronological order:

  • reporting a death and getting a death certificate;
  • organising a cremation and a funeral;
  • writing and giving a eulogy;
  • hosting a wake;
  • schmoozing with the local mayor;
  • getting bank and utility accounts into my mother’s name (without anything being frozen in the process, which apparently is quite an achievement);
  • driving a tractor;
  • liaising with the notaire (French solicitor-type person) to sort out my father’s estate;
  • getting a bit shirty with the notaire because a year is not ‘fairly quickly’;
  • dealing with home insurers and convincing them to maintain cover despite my father having cancelled the policy and nobody having paid the bill;
  • sorting out a tax return;
  • arranging a high speed international house move;
  • coordinating a large number of family members in respect of a high speed international house move (spreadsheets were involved);
  • getting two unruly border collies across the channel without causing an international incident (it was going so well until the lady at customs tried to stroke one of them);
  • discussing with an estate agent why the house in France has not yet been sold and what we can do to make it more attractive to buyers;
  • negotiating payment of local and national property taxes, when nobody was sure what taxes need to be paid, which had already been paid and to whom they needed to be paid;
  • liaising with the estate agent once he had found a buyer for the house, to make sure that nothing – absolutely nothing, you hear me – gets in the way of the sale process;
  • selling a tractor (this is, incidentally, far more complicated and bureaucratic than one would anticipate initially); and
  • resolving a small issue around the non-payment of a water bill and disconnection of service (though you know that bit already).

I can say with some confidence that none of the French that I learned at school was of any use in any of these particular situations. The key, I found, was to be delightfully charming on the phone (i.e. don’t yell), to recognise what needed doing when, and to keep close track of a never-ending series of reference numbers.

At no stage, you will be pleased to hear, was I required to talk about my holidays, conjugate a verb or ask directions to the train station.