The will to grow

Last year, I took some root cuttings from one of my comfrey plants. I dug a hole next to the plant, rummaged around until I found some decent-sized roots and snipped off a few large-ish chunks. I then put them into small pots of compost, arranged the pots neatly in a sheltered corner of the gravel next to the shed and put them to the back of my mind. Until now. Continue reading

I appear to have overdone it with the plants (again)

I’ve done it again. I’ve got a little bit carried away with my seed-sowing and I have far more plants than I know what to do with. I do the same thing every year and each year I promise myself (and Natalie) that next year it will be different. And now I have a greenhouse, three cold frames and part of a garden full of little pots of plants that are looking for a loving home.

Tagetes seedlings

They didn’t seem much of a problem when they were this small

I could claim that it’s not my fault. I plant a few extra seeds in case they don’t all germinate and, when they inevitably all do germinate, I can’t bear to discard any of the tiny seedlings (I mean, they’ve kept their part of the bargain, so surely I have to keep mine) and pot them all up. What kind of heartless gardener would throw away perfectly good seedlings? A sensible one, probably, so we’ll move swiftly on.

Regardless of fault, the upshot is that I now have more plants than you can shake a stick at. I’ve got six varieties of tomatoes, two sorts of mint, loads of tagetes, four varieties of chilli, four or five sorts of courgette, ipomoea, mina lobata and more. Oh, and squash. Lots of squash.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been doing my best to rehome them. I’ve had a stall at my local country market, I’ve given some to my neighbours and I spent last Saturday morning selling some of them off at a plant sale in the town centre (total takings: £19). My wife has also got on the case, securing orders from several of her work colleagues (who benefit from a very generous 100% discount).

Plants for Stuart

A tray of plants for my neighbour

I’ve manage to find homes for about two thirds of my surplus stock so far, and will be off to market again tomorrow morning with the rest. On the basis of experience so far, I suspect that I may be bringing a fair few of them back home with me afterwards, so I will have to think of a further plan for any stragglers.

Plants for market

Ready for the market tomorrow

But anyway, there’s gradually a bit more space appearing in the greenhouse and the cold frames, which will give me room to pot up and grow on the other seedlings that I have yet to plant out. I know, I know – I’m doing it again. But the little fellas have done their bit and now it’s my turn. I shouldn’t have planted so many. I’ll do better next year.

Twelve little plants went to market

I made my first foray into the nursery trade last Friday, when I packed up a dozen of my home grown plants and headed down to my local Country Market. And I even made my first sale – one of my shuttlecock ferns was snapped up within minutes. Sadly, nothing else happened for the remaining hour and a quarter, but even Bill Gates and Steve Jobs had to start small.

In case you’re not familiar with Country Markets, and I suspect that you are not, let me tell you a little more. They were founded by the Women’s Institute as a way of helping people to offload their surplus home produce and to make a little money in the process. There are markets in most towns and villages, selling a range of food, crafts and plants. Everything you will find there is locally produced, assessed against stringent quality standards (and I know, because I have, in fact, read the manual) and home-cooked, home-made or home-grown.

The plant stall

The plant stall, with my own contribution in the foreground.

I would be surprised that the markets are not more popular, but the one I went to is held for just over an hour on a Friday morning, in a church hall just outside the town centre, with very little in the way of fanfare or advertising. So, to be honest, I’m quite surprised that anybody manages to find it at all.

Anyway, I picked out the most aesthetically pleasing of my current crop of young plants (four each of shuttlecock fern, moroccan mint, hebe pinguifolia and garden mint) and took them along. My first thought was that I was clearly not in the market’s core demographic. For one thing, I was (and still am, for that matter) a bloke. And for another thing, I’m (quite a lot) under 65. But the market controller introduced me to the other producers and everyone made me feel welcome right from the start.

Jane and Heather

Jane (left) and Heather, my fellow plant-sellers.

There were two other people there with plants to sell, Jane and Heather, both of whom have been involved with the market for some time and were, consequently, able to guide me through the various requirements in terms of labelling, filling in my record sheet (to make sure I get paid) and presenting my plants to best effect. Apparently, trekking a load of mud into the hall and then leaving your plants to dribble water all over the stall while you wander off in search of a cup of tea is not how things are done.

Because the market is a cooperative, everyone works together to set everything up (the real reason people were so happy to see me, I suspect, given the number of tables and chairs that needed lugging around), engage with customers, sell things and tidy up afterwards. There are communal tills for the different sections (food, craft and plants), which explains the need for detailed records of who has brought what and how much they are left with at the end, with producers receiving their takings (less a 10% commission) once a month.

As the new kid on the block, my role was restricted to helping to set up the stall, engaging in a little light banter with customers, answering questions about the plants (though promoting one’s own plants is discouraged – you have to treat all producers equally), drinking tea and generally getting in the way. I may at some stage be allowed to operate the cash box, but baby steps. Though I was allowed on one occasion to double-check a total. (It’s all mental arithmetic here.)

And with my one solitary plant sold, I have made a grand total of £2. Less commission, which brings it down to £1.80. Clearly, this is unlikely to become a major earner any time soon. But it will hopefully be a useful way to get rid of some of my surplus plants (which I just can’t stop growing) and to introduce people around here to something other than petunias. It was also, to my surprise, excellent fun. I may even be slightly addicted. I’ll definitely be there again this week.

A micro-farmer’s dilemma

I’m starting to detect a slight problem with my food-growing exploits. Nothing to do with the plants themselves, fortunately, which are growing well and looking good. In fact, I’ve started to refer to our garden as ‘the micro-farm’, in anticipation of this becoming a recognised (though haphazard) model of agriculture at some point in the near future. No, the problem is definitely me, rather than my future foodstuffs.

It started on Sunday evening, when I packed my bag and headed off to London, in preparation for a seminar that I was delivering on Monday morning. In itself, of course, no big issue (provided we brush over the fact that I was going to work at the weekend). But before I left, I was compelled to leave Natalie with a detailed list of care requirements for my various seeds, seedlings and young plants.

Keep the seed trays slightly damp, so that they don’t dry out – but don’t let them get soggy. Water the pea plants well and check that they haven’t got tangled up with each other again. Check the chilli plants and water any that are particularly dry, but only first thing in the morning as they don’t like to go to bed with damp feet. Untangle the hop from its preferred home tangled around the bench and try to convince it to stay on its support this time. Open the cold frames once the sun is up, and close them just before dusk – or if it gets windy. Oh, and feel free to eat some salad, but not the micro-leaves as they need a couple more days. The list went on. (Though was, I suspect, mostly ignored.)

I’ve spent the last few years learning about how best to grow the various fruits, vegetables and flowers that I enjoy, and try to make sure that I look after them well. I’m used to doing the rounds first thing in the morning and in the early evening, watering the crops and checking for bugs, as well as generally keeping an eye on things during the day if I’m around. So the thought of leaving them alone, with (let’s be honest) essentially a substitute teacher in charge, was harrowing in the extreme.

The same thing happened last month, when we went over to Germany for a few days. Admittedly, I didn’t have so many young plants at that stage, so things were a little easier. But even then, I spent the days before our departure desperately hoping my chilli and mint plants were hardened off sufficiently, so that I could leave them in the greenhouse for the neighbours to water in my absence. What if something comes up when everything needs planting out? I’ll be a nervous wreck…

I guess this is the problem when you have living things of any form, whether plants or livestock, that require daily attention. You get into a routine of caring for them and then need quickly to come up with a Plan B when other things demand your attention, such as the job that actually pays for you to own the garden and the plants and everything else. And then you end up in London first thing on a Monday morning, trying to deliver a seminar to a roomful of serious people, when all you can think about is whether or not your wife has remembered to water the courgettes.

From plot to plate

This time of year is known traditionally as the ‘hungry gap’, when the winter vegetables have finished and the summer ones have yet to make an appearance. Which is why I’m deriving huge (and perhaps unwarranted) amounts of pleasure from the fact that yesterday, for the first time this year, we were able to tuck in to some of our produce from the garden.

Baby Leaf Salad

The first of this year's salad crop

I mustn’t get carried away here, because it wasn’t a whole meal or anything. But it’s a start. And having spend the last couple of months preparing the soil, planting seeds and caring for the growing plants, it’s nice to get a return on my investment. Especially because I know that from now until the depths of winter, my hard (but incredibly enjoyable work) will result in fresh, healthy food for our plates.

Pea Tips

Pea tips

First up was a delicious home-grown mixed salad to go with our main course, bringing together the baby salad leaves that I have grown in the greenhouse, together with some tender pea tips and a couple of leaves of succulent wild garlic. It was just a small selection of leaves with a bit of olive oil and some balsamic vinegar, but the perfect start to the year’s harvest.

In case this doesn’t seem as impressive to you as it did to me, let me move on to dessert, for which we rustled up my all-time favourite: rhubarb crumble and custard. We have a big rhubarb plant at the bottom of the garden that is getting more rampant each year, and this season’s stems had finally got large and numerous enough that we thought we’d harvest some. And, boy, were they delicious.

Before…

Rhubarb

…and after!

Rhubarb Crumble

Definitely a most excellent start to the year. And with a whole host of other fruits and vegetables either growing away or waiting to be sown, there’s much more to come.

Eight ideas for a fun life

When I read through books and magazine, or talk to people when I’m out and about, I’m constantly coming across new ideas or new ways of doing things. As someone who is on an ongoing quest to ‘do well, be nice and have a life… all at the same time’, I get very excited about these things but invariably never get around to doing anything about them.

So rather than consign them to my little black book of ‘things to do when I’ve got a spare month on my hands’, I thought I’d share them with you here on my blog. I’m not saying that these are necessarily good ideas, or that they’ll make you the next Richard Branson, but they’re all things that sound fun to me.

If you want to give any of them a try, then please feel free. And do let me know how it goes. I might even try one or two myself, at some point, if I ever get around to it.

1. The veggie van. Get a van, preferably an electric one or one of those really old Renault things, and set up a mobile shop selling local fruit, vegetables, bread and preserves. Collect produce from local suppliers in the morning and spend the afternoon and evening driving to wherever your customers need you to be, such as outside offices or by the railway station. We all love farmers markets, after all, but they’re usually either only once a month or during the week, when everyone’s at work.

2. The mobile coffee cart. Get a little motorised coffee cart and set up a regular round in your local area, selling tea, coffee and home-made pastries. Smile at everybody, ask how they are and become a local icon. Not necessarily the biggest money-spinner, but a great way to get out, meet people and generate a sense of community.

3. The market garden. There’s a field on the edge of our town that was bought by the Council a couple of years ago. They’re currently deciding whether to turn it into a football pitch or a children’s playground. What it would make, though, is an excellent market garden, growing fresh, organic fruit and vegetables for the local population and bringing people closer to the food they eat. So find a small plot of land and get growing.

4. The guerilla gardening campaign. I’m a big fan of guerilla gardening (see http://www.guerrillagardening.org/ if you don’t know what that is) and think that it’s a brilliant way to make boring, overgrown or derelict parts of town more beautiful and more inspiring. I’ve never really got around to doing much about it, though. But what’s to stop you (or me, for that matter) from sowing a handful of sunflower seeds on a roundabout or growing a few radishes in the planter by the bus stop?

5. The virtual orchard. I’d really love an apple orchard, but like most people have limited space. So for the moment, at least, I’ll have to be satisfied with the couple of little trees at the bottom of the garden. But why not a ‘virtual’ orchard? Go around your community and map out where the different apple trees are and who owns them. Then, at harvest time, recruit volunteers to pick the apples, turn them into juice or cider or anything apple-y, and share them with the ‘owners’ of the orchard and everyone else in your community.

6. The heritage trail. The town I live in has a fantastic history dating back through the centuries, but nobody really seems to know very much about where they live and how it has developed. My (currently very vague) plan is to develop a guided walking tour of the town, highlighting the key elements of its social, cultural and industrial heritage. This would be accompanied by a guidebook, an audio download, a colourful map and perhaps even some display boards. Why not do something similar for where you live?

7. The guerilla art campaign. I’m a big fan of art, especially things that challenge me or make me think about things in a new way. In a wood near where my mum lives, someone has made tiny little front doors that they have stuck to the trunks of some of the trees. Inspired. Or check out some of Slinkachu’s little people. I like drawing and I like making things, so why can’t I find the time (or the talent) to do something like this? It’s fun, it’s cool and it makes people smile. There really ought to be state funding available…

8. The community bookshop / coffee shop / bakery. I like books, I like coffee, I like baking and I like bringing people together. So my wife’s suggestion that I find a group of local people and open a not-for-profit community bookshop, coffee shop and bakery probably isn’t too far off the mark. A group of similarly-minded folk have opened a community bookshop in the next town and it seems to be going great guns. After all, who doesn’t like coming in for a coffee, a good read and a bit of a chat?

Regaining my balance

The best thing about being self-employed is being able to plan my own time and to do pretty much whatever I want. The worst thing about being self-employed is, inevitably, being able to plan my own time and to do pretty much whatever I want. I say this because, in the last couple of months, there’s been an awful lot of doing, but precious little in the way of planning. And I’m not really striking the right balance between the different things that I do.

I find that I’m fine with the big things, like my ongoing consultancy projects, which start to make a fuss (metaphorically, at least) if they don’t get the attention that they need. But when it comes to the less vociferous but equally important things, like my longer term writing projects, the plants I’m growing and (as you’ve probably noticed from the unforgivable lack of posts recently) my blog, then I’m a little less consistent than I would like.

In order to at least attempt to rectify this appalling lack of focus, I’ve tried to figure out what I do in my consultancy work that I don’t do with everything else, in the hope that I might be able to apply this discipline to some of the other aspects of my life. And what I found out was, in fact, remarkably simple. In my work, I set goals for each activity, assign a deadline and then set aside a specific time to do it. So whether it’s a meeting with a client, some data analysis or writing a report, each gets an appropriate slot in my diary.

So why, I asked myself, does this rigour have to apply only to the more ‘traditional’ aspects of work? Why can’t I use the same approach for everything else? And the answer, of course, is that I can. The best way to make sure that I get everything done is, clearly, to set aside a specific time to do it. (And then actually do it, of course, but that’s a different story.)

It reminds me of something someone once told me on a management course that I went on for my old job. There are the important things, he said, and there are the urgent things. The important things wait patiently to get done, while the urgent things jump up and down like the kid at the front of the class desperate to answer the teacher’s question. “Pick me! Pick me!”, they insist. And so we invariably do the urgent things, while the more important matters (which are generally the things that we actually want to do) remain forever on the ‘to do’ list.

The answer, the guy explained, is to think of the important things as big pebbles and the smaller ones as tiny bits of gravel. Imagine that you have to fit them all into a jar, which represents the time that you have available. If you put the gravel in first, then it fills up the jar and there’s no room for the larger pebbles. But if you put the pebbles in first, you can then use the gravel to full up the gaps around them. In essence, then, I need to make time for the more important things first, and then spread the smaller, urgent-but-not-necessarily-important things around to fill in the gaps.

So this is what I’m now trying to do. I’ve been through my to-do list and have decided for each item whether it is important, urgent, both or neither. Things that are both urgent and important come first, so I’ve allocated each of them a specific time in my diary over the next few days. The important things come next, so I’ve set aside some time each day to work on one or more of them, such as my writing projects or potting-up my chilli plants. The things that are neither urgent nor important have either been wiped off my to-do list entirely (very liberating!) or scheduled in when I know I’ll have a bit of down-time, such as when I’ll be travelling on the train or when I have a gap between meetings. (I wrote this blog post on the train, for example, and am now posting it online in Starbucks.) As new to-do tasks arise, I’ll do the same sort of triage with each one.

The end result is a to-do list where I now have a date and time allocated to do each thing, which makes it look a whole lot manageable. I also have a diary where at least two thirds of each day is planned out, which will make it much easier for me to manage my time productively. It also makes me look a whole lot more busy, even if some of the slots are for things like ‘sow beetroot seeds’, which don’t look particularly executive. And the unscheduled third of each day gives me some flexibility to respond to other things that come up, such as a sunny day that requires my urgent attention in the garden!

This doesn’t mean that I have to stick rigidly to my schedule, of course, as things will inevitably crop up from time to time that mean I need to change my plans. But I’ve made a deal with myself that if I have to ‘cancel’ an activity that I’ve planned in, then I will reschedule it for a later date, just as I would do if I had to push back a meeting with one of my clients.

I’ll be the first to admit that this isn’t an earth-shattering change to my life, particularly as it’s basically something that I’ve been doing for many of my ‘work’ activities for some time now. But it does give me hope that I’ll be able to create and maintain a harmonious balance that lets me devote time to all of my activities and interests. Which, after all, if why I became self-employed in the first place.

Photo of the week

Delicious salad with nasturtium flowers

Mmmmm.... delicious!

As part of my drive to eat more healthily, I’ve been trying to make the most of the things I grow in the garden. Here’s a salad I made from salad leaves and nasturtium flowers, dressed simply with olive oil, balsamic vinegar and a little freshly ground black pepper. Just as quick to make as cheese on toast – and much more healthy.