The unexpected ways the garden changed our life.

The Life-Changing Magic of Gardening;
or the unexpected ways the garden changed our life.

Q:  So, how can a garden, (a garden!) change your life?
A:  Slowly, but inexorably, until you are no longer the person you were before.

Growing edibles changes so many things, for example, post-garden we…
… ate fresher food
… became more aware of where our food comes from
… cooked with what we had (which was always in season!)
… gained a sense of ABUNDANCE
… became part of a community
… felt more in control of our own life
… learned – and keep learning – a lot
… eat much more interesting food
… are more creative and self-reliant
… save a lot of money on food
… grow stuff you can’t buy in the shops

How did this magic happen?

When we moved house and gained a plot of garden – or at least the promise of a garden under the rubble and junk – I hoped to grow a few tomatoes and herbs.  I’d grown both before – in a pot in a shared garden, and before that, some basil on a windowsill. It was something nice to do, the herbs would look pretty as well as add some freshness to our cooking, and maybe save a few ££ too.  So, why not?

However, the garden had other ideas.  Evidently much bigger ideas.

To begin with, the land had to be cleared of weeds and old TV sets and assorted rubbish.  After this was done with the help of some wonderful friends, it was suggested by the allotment holders amongst those friends that we plant some potatoes to break up the heavy, clumped, clay soil.  I figured, why not, and got some red seed potatoes from a local garden centre and chucked them in. Then I got some tomato seeds, started them off indoors and later planted them out. Turns out they grow tall (especially if you don’t know about snipping the growing tips off) so next I bought some bamboo canes and secured the plants to them.  We got some parsley and basil and coriander plants from the supermarket and planted them. The basil died, the coriander went to seed, and the parsley thrived. We then got a pot of mint – which thrived also. Another early inhabitant of the garden was the potted rhubarb we had received from a previous neighbour. I dug a deep hole, manhandled the rhubarb out of its pot and bedded it down in its permanent home.  Oh, and Ed got some alpine strawberry plants from ebay, which also went in. And later on that summer, I got a strawberry plant from the local DIY store in a red hanging planter.

Suddenly, the garden felt quite full.  I had a feeling of being inside one of my favourite childhood stories – ‘Button Soup’, where soup is made from a button and water only.  But as the soup would be so much tastier with a few carrots, those get added, and of course, a few potatoes and herbs as they are knocking around… and so on.  The garden had become my button soup. Adding a plant here, buying a packet of seeds there, reading the backs of packets for planting instructions, everything was trial and error.

But towards the end of that summer, we suddenly had a ‘crop’.  We had kilos of tomatoes, followed by kilos of potatoes – both so much  more delicious than even the best of the supermarket offerings. And we had fresh herbs, and although the alpine strawberries don’t yield much, spotting one and popping it in your mouth for a burst of flavour was stupendously happy-making.  The garden was useful, in that we had saved money and got loads of tasty vegetables, but it was starting to make us feel happy. And content. It was weaving its magic.

At the time, I was stuck in an unhappy job, but every summer evening I would come home and do some weeding or planting, sometimes for just 20 minutes – which turned out to be transformative.  The stresses and frustrations would just soak into the soil, to be processed along with other bits of debris – putting everything in perspective again.

The following year, I planted more things – some of the neighbours had noticed the garden coming up and offered plants and seeds, and the kids in the close got involved.  They would stand at the edge of the garden and ask ‘What are you doing?’ (over and over) and ‘Can we help?’. And where the kids go, the parents follow. I did not realise that growing stuff creates community.  Neighbours further up the close offered cuttings of their grapevine and samples of home-made wine, others offered apples from their tree, extra seedlings, recipes.  I shared home-made elderflower cordial, potatoes, rhubarb. Last year, we had the first ever street BBQ.

Over the years, we have planted a huge variety of things, some things did well, some not so much.  But it has really brought home how BORING most of the things we eat are. I read that 75% of our diet is composed of only 12 plants.  How crazy is that? Could we actually be malnourished? I do know that by just buying in our food we are missing out on wonderful produce. It also means others curate what we eat. Even if you just plant tomatoes and potatoes, you can plant the best-tasting varieties as you don’t have to worry about them being high-yielding, uniform in shape, keeping well, transporting well and all the other considerations people growing for profit have to think of.  Which means you get veritable taste explosions from what you do grow. Smile-inducing, happy-making, flavour punches. You can grow mini-yellow tomatoes which are bursting with sugar; purple carrots and potatoes; wild strawberries; your own medicinal tea chest; elephant garlic; nasturtiums for a punchy pesto and mustard for greens – to name just a few.

Over the years, the garden became my laboratory.  Everything was an experiment. Would this grow in this spot?  Did it need more or less water? Would the slugs like it? Some things thrived, some died.  But there was no judgement. It just was. If something died, it created a space to plant something new.  There is always stuff to do, new projects to start, new things to try, but you can also just sit back and watch what the garden is doing.  Sometimes you don’t interfere, sometimes you step in. I’m learning that the garden will never be ‘finished’. In a world full of projects and deadlines, it is refreshing to just immerse myself into the cycle of the garden.  You do stuff ‘to’ the garden, but it also does stuff without you.  And it too, does stuff to you!

For an overachieving perfectionist, an insidious kind of zen crept in.  Now, if I need some peace, I go into the garden, and just … am.

One of the pleasures that is hard to explain is the feeling you get when, before dinner, you go out to see what there is in the garden that is ready to eat and come back with a couple of baby courgettes, a variety of herbs, a handful of jewelled tomatoes and some beans, which you will cook in whatever way you are inspired to that particular evening.  I was never particularly keen on beans – sure, I’d eat them, but didn’t really see the point – but now I wolf them down – when fresh, they are crispy and so different in flavour to the limp fare bought in shops. Also, walking around the garden instead or round a sterile supermarket after work just feels so good.

I also realised that I could grow stuff that is either expensive to buy in shops, or difficult or impossible to source – for example:

  • Edible flowers such as nasturtiums
  • Nasturtium seedpods
  • Mustards
  • Courgette flowers
  • Elephant garlic & its flowers
  • Garlic ‘scapes’

I learned what to do with this ‘exotic’ produce, and the above have now become part of our everyday diet.  They taste amazing, but do not transport well or work in large-scale farming, so unless you grow your own you won’t get to taste them.

As a further bonus, gardening keeps you learning – you look up new varieties to try, you study how to combat slugs, you read up about mycelliums and forest gardening.  You are no longer a passive consumer that has to have things shipped to their local shop for them to buy or they will starve. You are an intelligent person, who understands how food grows and does not have to rely on all of their food on the big profit making machine that is our economy.

And, when growing, you often get ‘gluts’ – a lot of fruit/veg ripening at one time – far too much to use in one go.  And this creates something very valuable – a feeling of abundance. Something that you don’t get when shopping! So you have all this stuff, and you make it into jam, give it to friends and neighbours, dry it, freeze it, and it feels so good.

Before the garden, we were fully immersed in the current consumerist system – working, getting money, buying food.  We were consumers, and part of our psyche knew it. Now, we grow our own food – only some of it, true –  but it is enough for a paradigm shift.  We are now growers, creators, creatures of abundance, people that can look out on growing things and feel a sense of wellbeing and joy, just because.

Until we moved to this little rented flat – with a garden – I had no idea how transformative growing your own produce could be.  This garden changed my life – our lives, and this is why I need to share this story.